Friday, May 23, 2008

The swords and sorcery debt owed to Lin Carter

The name of Lin Carter, widely reviled in fantasy fiction circles, deserves some reconsideration.

Nowadays Carter is regarded as a hack who tarnished Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. There's little debate that he and L. Sprague de Camp engaged in some heavy-handed editing of Howard in the famous (infamous?) Lancer-published Conan paperback series of the 1960's, altering Howard's words and intermingling his stories of the legendary Cimmerian with some questionable-quality pastiches of their own.

But the other day I had a revelation after reading Flashing Swords #1 (Dell Publishing, 1973), the first in a briefly-running fantasy anthology series edited by Carter: The guy had an undeniable passion for the branch of fantasy fiction known as swords and sorcery, and, as a keeper of its flame for a good decade or more, probably deserves much better treatment than he receives in many Howard circles.

One of Carter's short stories appears in Flashing Swords #1: "The Higher Heresies of Oolimar," an adventure of Amalric the man-god. It pales alongside the other trio of swords and sorcery heavyweights in this volume, including Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, and Jack Vance. On his best day, Carter was nowhere near the class of writer of these three.

"Oolimar" reads like a bad Conan pastiche, all sound and fury and no soul (although Carter is not without a sense of humor, and there's some amusing scenes in it. In fact, I'm not sure that Amalric isn't intended as some lampoon of the mighty-thewed barbarian archetype). Even his most ardent fans (if any such exist) surely wouldn't claim that Carter was a great writer. He was not. But it's not his swords and sorcery yarns, his science fiction, nor his Cthulhu pastiches for which Carter deserves reconsideration. Rather, it's his contributions to the field as an editor and ethusiastic, influential spokesman that makes Carter worthy of respect.

I found his introduction to Flashing Swords #1 ("Of Swordsmen and Sorcerers") as illuminating and entertaining as any of the tales that followed. Carter's best qualities as an editor shine through here, including the following:

His knowledge of the field. Carter starts off with a definition of Swords & Sorcery, a branch of fantasy that is still widely misunderstood today (heck, Hobbit director Guillermo del Toro called Tolkien's body of work "swords and sorcery," which couldn't be further from the truth). As Carter succinctly sums up:

We call a story Sword & Sorcery when it is an action tale, derived from the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land, age or world of the author's invention--a milieu in which magic actually works and the gods are real--a story, morever, which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil.

That seems to be a pretty-spot on definition to me, and it was written in 1973. Carter also wisely credits Fritz Leiber for coining the term Sword & Sorcery, and Howard for founding it. Again, I think he's spot-on here. His essay speaks eloquently about Howard's influence and the genre's beginnings in the pulp men's magazine Weird Tales.

His enthusiasm for Swords & Sorcery. Love him or hate him, Carter's passion for Swords & Sorcery was undeniable. After laying the foundations of the genre, "Of Swordsmen and Sorcerers" next details Carter's relationship with the other S&S writers of the 1960'/70's. During a three-way exchange of correspondence between himself, de Camp, and John Jakes circa 1970, Vance hit on the idea of forming a guild, similar to the Mystery Writers of America or the Science Fiction Writers of America. Calling themselves The Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America--or SAGA for short--the group banded together and eventually expanded to eight members, a terrific cast that eventually included Jakes, Carter, de Camp, Leiber, Vance, Anderson, Michael Moorcock, and Andre Norton. Says Carter:

We authors of S&S--all eight of us!--would form a genuine do-nothing guild whose only excuse for existing would be to get together once in a while and hoist a few goblets of the grape in memory of absent friends.

How can you hate a guy with that kind of passion? SAGA's members later conferred outrageous titles upon each other--for example, de Camp was honored with the title of Supreme Sadist of the Reptile Men of Yag, while Carter was the Purple Druid of the Glibbering Horde of the Slime Pits of Zugthakya.

Getting S&S into print. Folks today largely forget that fantasy fiction was once a pale shadow of its current self--bookshelves now choked with heavy volumes of fantasy trilogies were once dominated by science fiction titles, and writers like Poul Anderson--whose natural inclination was fantasy--were forced to write science fiction stories because they paid the bills. But the rise of J.R.R. Tolkien helped change all that, as did the influence of the oft-overlooked Carter. Springing from SAGA came Flashing Swords, an anthology of stories by some of S&S's best minds. And according to the Web site below, during his stint as a Ballantine editor Carter was also responsible for revival reprints of fantasy masters such as Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, William Morris, and E.R. Eddison.

So how is Flashing Swords #1? Not bad. I enjoyed Leiber's tale ("The Sadness of the Executioner," a story of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser). "Morreion" by Vance didn't do much for me, although for D&D buffs it contains a couple recognizable elements that Gary Gygax borrowed wholesale, including Ioun Stones and colorfully named spells like Houlart's Blue Extractive. The best of the lot was Anderson's "The Merman's Children." I find Anderson to be a great writer. Check out his wonderful description of this ruined undersea city:

Below him reached acres of ruin. Averorn had been large, and built throughout of stone. Most had toppled to formless masses in the silt. But here stood a tower, like a last snag tooth in a dead man's jaw; there a temple only partly fallen, gracious colonnades around a god who sat behind his altar and stared blind into eternity; yonder the mighty wreck of a castle, its battlements patrolled by weirdly glowing fish; that way the harbor, marked off by mounds that were buried piers and city walls, still crowned with galleons; this way a house, roof gone to show the skeleton of a man forever trying to shield the skeletons of a woman and child; and everywhere, everywhere burst-open vaults and warehouses, the upward twinkle of gold and diamonds on the seabed!

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Anderson is one of the unappreciated true greats.

But back to Carter: While I fault him for his ill-advised editorial decisions with Howard, his work bringing to print Flashing Swords and other stories "with verse and sparkle and wit and polish ... headlong adventure and excitement; stories of action and stories of subtler mood" makes him worthy of equal parts criticism and praise.

Note: For more about Lin Carter's influence, check out this Web site (if your eyes can stand the horrible green background): http://www.angelfire.com/az/vrooman/index.html

10 comments:

trollsmyth said...

Nice! I'll have to track that book down.

(And in your 5th paragraph, Carter turns into Vance a few times, I think.)

- Brian

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the catch, Trollsmyth. I went back and fixed it.

There's a comic book store about a half-hour from where I live that has a basement full of fantasy and sci-fi books (Webhead comics in Wakefield, MA). I've found a ton of old swords and sorcery novels and short story collections down there, most in the $2-3 range. But I imagine you could find Flashing Swords! on Ebay easily enough.

Terry L said...

You've hit the nail on the head I think. I certainly am not one of those who hates Carter and wasn't aware he was held in general revulsion (but then I'm not an RE Howard afficianado, so that likely explains it).

He should rightly be held in high esteem for his capacity as an editor (esp. of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy library) and his early efforts in the scholarship of fantasy...however he is truly one of the worst writers of fantasy out there. I think he was a fan who also wanted to be a writer, but alas just wasn't very good at it. Almost all of his stories are more or less direct pastiches of someone else's stuff and come off very much to me as fan-fiction.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Terry, yes, some of the comments I've read about Carter in messageboards across the internet place him a notch or two above Charles Manson. I mean, the guy did mess around unnecessarily with Howard's fiction, but I think he deserves much more credit for getting it published in the first place in Lancer and Ace. Let's not forget that Howard, though a pulp phenomenonin the 1920's and 1930's, was languishing in obscurity until the mass-marketed Lancer paperbacks with their great Frank Frazetta covers hit the general populace in the 1960's. Those books opened up a whole new legions of fans to Howard, myself included.

I do agree that, from what little I've read, Carter's fiction is very lousy.

Badelaire said...

Eh, it's not that bad - it's just more the work of a very enthusiastic amateur who wants to produce something on the level of his literary heroes, but just lacks the talent to do so. I'm pretty forgiving of his writing ability, and enjoy his books for the casual fun that they are. I dig Thongor and the Ganelon Silvermane books, and while I don't like the revisioning of the REH material, I blame most of that on De Camp.

I've got a later Flashing Swords compilation at home, #3 or 5, I can't recall at the moment - need to give it a read ASAP.

Fairyfruiteater said...

Not a big fan of Carter's work either. I am in agreement with you on that point, but the man deserves credit for reviving alot of stuff that was unknown and out of print. His forewords are some of the most informative and well written pieces I have ever read. The Flashing Sword books are great but if you haven't yet checked out the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, do so. Published in the late 60's and early 70's Carter helped put back in print many missing jewels of the fantasy genre. The sure way to identify these books is to look for the Unicorn Head icon in the upper right corner. Great stuff.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Fairyfruiteater (great name!), thanks for stopping by. I actually own a handful of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, and agree that they are excellent, far better than much of the multi-book drek lining the fantasy shelves in bookstores today.

Some of the titles from that line I've procured from used bookstores include A Voyage to Arcturus, The Island of the Mighty, and The Well at the World's End.

Fairyfruiteater said...

Yeah, Brian, I am trying to go about collecting all the unicorn head books. So far I've got about a third of them. You probably know I took my name from a concept in one of those books. That book was "Lud in the Mist", you should check that one out if you haven't, very good book. All the books you listed I have and their very excellent, in fact I was first exposed to Lovecraft by Carter in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series book "Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath". When I was a teenager got a little sick of reading Tolkien rip offs when I saw this book in a used book store, I picked it up and I read it and was hooked. Now that I am older I am trying to acquire all of the series which is very good. Currently reading a compilation Carter put together called "Golden Cities, Far" in the unicorn head series, a book of old tales from Ancient Egyptian papyrus, to Medieval Fantasy, so far, very good. Carter again does a excellent job in his notes and forewords.

Jim Henry said...

In four words: bad writer, great editor.

As an editor he had a couple of bad habits -- both of which you mention or allude to -- but he also did great work in (1) resurrecting the reputations of forgotten authors; (2) instigating authors who'd fallen silent to write new stuff (e.g. Evangeline Walton and her Mabinogion tetralogy, which she'd left a quarter-finished forty years before he reprinted the first book and egged her on to write the other three); (3) discovering new writers, e.g. Katherine Kurtz; (4) editing important anthologies -- besides those mentioned by you and earlier commenters, he also did a series of Year's Best Fantasy anthologies decades before Datlow & Windling started their anthology series. There are dozens of great authors I would never have heard of if it hadn't been for his work.

His introductions, whether to reprinted novels or new anthologies, are always infectiously enthusiastic and usually informative and insightful.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Jim, I don't know what else to say, other than I completely agree. Carter did more to preserve and promote fantasy fiction than about any other editor of which I'm aware. He doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves, unfortunately.