Thursday, September 1, 2011

Swords and Sorcery at its Pinnacle: A Look Back at The Fantastic Swordsmen

For those who put entertainment first, heroic fantasy offers it in its purest form.

—L. Sprague de Camp, The Fantastic Swordsmen

Although many of its foundational writers had already sailed into the west, swords and sorcery reached a Weird peak in the 1960s. In 1961 Fritz Leiber coined the term “swords and sorcery” in the journal Ancalagon. The Swordsmen and Sorcerer’s Guild of America (can I get a membership, please?) began the first of its secretive meetings. And the Lancer published, L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter-edited Conan series with its splendid Frank Frazetta covers was everywhere. These were heady times for the genre. Although the mass-produced works of the era can still be readily found and enjoyed today, I can only imagine when books like The Swords of Lankhmar could be found in drugstore wire spinner racks and the like.

In that strange time of tie-dye and Tolkien, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the pages of paperback books, Pyramid Books published four swords and sorcery anthologies. Edited by fantasy/science fiction author L. Sprague de Camp, the series began with Swords and Sorcery (1963) and concluded with 1970’s Warlocks and Warriors.

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17 comments:

David J. West said...

I have yet to read Kuttner (I falsely believed it would be the derivative lame stuff) I'll have to go a hunting.

Trey said...

Good review. I think there's a lot of good stuff in these various 70s S&S anthologies. A lot of less than good stuff, too, but a lot of good.

dhowarth333 said...

At the risk of nitpicking, Kadath is not the name of Lovecraft's dream world, but rather that of a single mountain located therein.

Paul R. McNamee said...

@David; Even better than Elak, Kuttner wrote two s-&-s stories featuring Prince Raynor. They are included in the Elak collection from Planet Stories. (or, you can find them in 'Echoes of Valor III'.) After reading them, my only thought was that I wish he had written more of them - which, really, is the highest praise I can give.

http://adventuresfantastic.blogspot.com/2011/04/henry-kuttners-prince-raynor-cursed-be.html

@Brian; thanks for the review. I need to get this set for my collection.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

The original membership of SAGA was Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, John Jakes, Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, and Andre Norton. A few others came later, mostly as they were included in Carter's Flashing Swords anthologies, but that's the core group.

Brian Murphy said...

I have yet to read Kuttner (I falsely believed it would be the derivative lame stuff) I'll have to go a hunting.

As Paul said below, Kuttner is definitely worth reading. Of course I've read only a couple of his stories. But "Dragon Moon" is worth the price of admission on this book.

De Camp provides an introduction to each author in The Fantastic Swordsmen, and he also calls Kuttner stylistically derivative of H.P. Lovecraft and Howard (I can sort of see that myself). But I've also seen him cited as an influence by the likes of Ray Bradbury.

I think there's a lot of good stuff in these various 70s S&S anthologies. A lot of less than good stuff, too, but a lot of good.

Agreed, Trey. There's some landmines to watch out for, too. This particular collection though I thought was excellent (with the Jakes/bastardized Howard caveats noted).

At the risk of nitpicking, Kadath is not the name of Lovecraft's dream world, but rather that of a single mountain located therein.

Damn, I failed my Lovecraft Lore D100 skill check.

The original membership of SAGA was Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, John Jakes, Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, and Andre Norton. A few others came later, mostly as they were included in Carter's Flashing Swords anthologies, but that's the core group.

I'd love to read more about this group--the Wikipedia entry is rather scanty. Are there any articles out there about SAGA? I'd love to know what they did at their meetings, etc.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Brian, Lin Carter talked about them a good bit in various articles and interviews. I'll see what I can dig up. For the most part I think it was a guild mostly in name and various members would meet up of they were at the same conventions. Moorcock says he was mostly a member in name.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Okay, here we go. From Imaginary Worlds by Lin Carter:

"Unlike most other writer's organizations, SAGA is strictly forbidden by its constitution to engage in any activity whatsoever of an official nature. No meetings, bulletins, banquets, awards, blacklists, etc,etc." He goes on to say "About the only thing the constitution permits the members to do is get together at a bar at science fiction conventions and hoist a few to absent friends."

So yeah, it wasn't really an active organization. The group was originally founded by Carter, de Camp, and Jakes.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for digging that up, Charles. I like the thought of these guys getting drunk and talking swords and sorcery.

anarchist said...

I wonder if the alliterative titles inspired that of Dungeons & Dragons?

Taran said...

I just bought the Planet Stories "Elak of Atlantis" collection yesterday in a piece of fortuitous timing. When I get around to reading it, I'm sure I'll put up a commentary of some sort.

Brian Murphy said...

Please do Taran, I need to pick up that myself.

Andy said...

I echo the comments that while Kuttner's Elak stories are good fun, it's the two Prince Raynor stories he wrote that really made me wish for more.

One thing about Elak that's interesting, though, is that Kuttner basically came up with a light-hearted buddy dynamic in S&S fiction before Fritz Leiber created Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. I feel that Leiber was able to better realize an idea that Kuttner wasn't quite able to get behind.

Anonymous said...

I like your comment on BG wordlbuilding my ass jejeje

more things don't you think nowadays and in the past decades s&s has been more present on comics, Conan, Warlord, Claw, the adaptations of Leibers works... than in books? is a very comic book oriented genre?

apart from David Gemmell, Charles Saunders and Glen Cook what authors have written s&s since the late 70's? Although I haven't read them I don't think Steven Erickson or R Scott Bakker writes s&s

by the way John Jakes, wasn't he an author of bestsellers?

Francisco

Andy said...

Comics latched onto S&S because S&S tends to be character-oriented - you can easily imagine a guy like Conan drifting from place, having different adventures - but epic fantasy is primarily about the plot and once the Dark Lord is overthrown it's done and there isn't any obvious place to go with it, which isn't as enticing for comics publishers.

Brian Murphy said...

One thing about Elak that's interesting, though, is that Kuttner basically came up with a light-hearted buddy dynamic in S&S fiction before Fritz Leiber created Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. I feel that Leiber was able to better realize an idea that Kuttner wasn't quite able to get behind.

Good point Andy, I agree: The Elak stories do have a flavor of Leiber pre-Fafhrd and the Gray Mouse.

You also speak wisdom regarding Francisco's question: I do think the episodic nature of S&S works well in a comic book medium.

apart from David Gemmell, Charles Saunders and Glen Cook what authors have written s&s since the late 70's?

Good question. You'll find a lot of newer, lesser-known swords and sorcery authors in the pages of Black Gate and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. I've heard Joe Abercrombie's stuff is much closer to S&S than epic fantasy.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Though I wouldn't call Abercrombie sword & sorcery, I would say his mindset is closer to REH than JRRT, particularly in his stand-alone books, Best Served Cold and The Heroes. Those have a more historical fiction feel to them than his First Law trilogy.