Sword & Sorcery: Fossil or Fuel?

In 2006 I wrote a story called “Black God’s Burden” which eventually appeared in Flashing Swords #11 (November 2008). The editorial comments on the piece got me thinking about Sword & Sorcery plots for some of the committee members (a pox on editing by committee!) felt the story was too cliché, that a story about a warrior charged by a wizard to under take a quest was just too hackneyed. I thought I had used that old chestnut to serve a new purpose, that the outcome of the tale was not the usual. Had I not turned it on its head? Was it an anti-S&S story (such as Larry Niven’s brilliant “Not Long Before the End”? ) No, I wasn’t parodying the old trope, showing the story from the wizard’s POV. My intent was to set up the main character for a series of stories about how he dealt with the curse he receives.

My story aside, it did get me thinking about Sword & Sorcery and the kinds of plots it uses. My story used a plot similar to many others (though not all follow this formula), which looked something like this:

  1. Hero is forced or chooses to take up a quest
  2. Hero enters domain of evil
  3. Hero encounters enemy (usually a wizard)
  4. Through personal combat (physical and/or mental) wins out. (Sometimes solving a mystery which they uses to win.)
  5. Hero exacts revenge on the one who forced him to go.

Examples of this type of plot begin with Robert E. Howard’s “Rogues in the House” (Weird Tales, January 1934) in which Conan enters Nabonidus’s house to kill him. There he must fight Thak, the apeman before he can kill the wizard. Conan has been arrested at the beginning of the story so his freedom is used as leverage against him. Other stories that follow similar story lines include “Spawn of Dagon” (Weird Tales, July 1938) by Henry Kuttner, “Hellsgarde” (Weird Tales, April 1939) by C. L. Moore, “Two Sought Adventure” (Unknown, August 1939) by Fritz Leiber, “The Devils in the Walls” (Fantastic Stories, May 1963) and “The Girl in the Gem” (Fantastic Stories, January 1965) by John Jakes, “The Overworld” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1965) by Jack Vance, “Thieves of Zangabal” (The Mighty Barbarians, 1969) by Lin Carter, “The Sword of the Sorcerer” (1970) by Gardner F. Fox, “The Sustenance of Hoak” (Swords Against Darkness 1, 1977) by Ramsey Campbell, and even “Dreamsong” (Heroic Fantasy, 1980) by F. Paul Wilson. There are many others to a greater or lesser degree.

What strikes me about this list first off is the quality of these tales. Kuttner, Moore, Leiber, Vance, Carter, Fox, Jakes, Campbell and Wilson are all highly regarded writers. Many of these folks would pen the classics of the sub-genre. Also, I am struck by the dates, 1930s, 40s, 60s, 70s, 80s. In other words the chain is largely unbroken from 1934 on. (The 1950s were a low point for S&S though not entirely devoid. Gardner F. Fox wrote the first openly S&S comic “Crom the Barbarian” in 1950. In that first of 3 comics, an old magician sends Crom on a quest for the secret of eternal life…)

But wait…Robert E. Howard didn’t really invent this either. Let’s consider some of the background stories that inspired Sword & Sorcery. Myths and fairy tales with their monsters and gods are a strong part of the mix. Consider a story like Beowulf, when he faces off with Grendel’s mother in the middle part of the poem. Beowulf chooses to pursue the dying Grendel, enters the realm of evil by diving down a deep well, faces the terrible mother of the monster no man could kill, begins to lose that battle until he spies an old sword and slays her. That is the basic S&S plot. Lin Carter says in his 1973 survey of Fantasy, Imaginary Worlds:

The Conan stories were really nothing new: the indomitable warrior battles against monsters and demons in a barbaric world is as old as St. George or Siegfried, Beowulf or Hercules, or Gilgamesh, for that matter. But the color and gusto that Howard brought to his brand of heroic fantasy made for superlative entertainment, and other writers were not hesitant about following in his footsteps…

Not everyone agrees: Alexei Panshin, Science Fiction critic in his review of de Camp/Carter Conan pastiches praised Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and C. L. Moore before writing: “…the sword and sorcery complex itself is a living fossil with no apparent ability to evolve.”

In conclusion, the S&S plot discussed here (as well as several others) is much older than Conan or Brak. It’s Gilgamesh verus Humbaba-old. It’s Thor vs. the Midgard Serpent-old. It’s probably sitting around a cave-old. What distinguishes the difference between a potboiler like “The Devils in the Walls” by John Jakes from a gem like Emma Bull’s “The Rending Dark” (Sword & Sorceress 1, 1984) is the purpose to which the author applies the formula. Jakes’s Brak tale is Conan-clone entertainment with no real agenda while Bull’s tale speaks to the nature of evil and the actions we must take against it. Both stories could be said to use the plot arc but the results are quite different. And this may be what Panshin was commenting on. The Conan pastiches of de Camp and Carter certainly pushed no envelopes. He most likely wanted to see more innovation within S&S and not let it become that fossil mentioned. Fuel, not fossil.

To go back to my own story for a minute. I recognize that the storyline of Teric the Bane-Blood fighting the shrall in the old temple of the Black God is firstly a harkening back to “The Devils in the Walls” by John Jakes, a story I still enjoy today. But the result of the quest leaves the hero cursed with the burden of thousands of children’s souls roiling under his skin and through his head. In this I wanted something more than mere entertainment. I wanted to set up the character for later stories about loss, obligation and ultimately making peace with your burdens in sequels like “The Godsend”. But that, is literally, another story…

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