Friday, October 4, 2019
Sword-and-sorcery and the problem of Robert E. Howard
Equating sword-and-sorcery with Robert E. Howard, and Howard alone, is an easy path to start down, and a tempting one to follow to the end. One I had to be mindful of, and consciously revise my line of thinking many times, while writing Flame and Crimson.
How do you define a genre that nearly everyone agrees Howard created, and not just default to Howard = S&S?
If S&S is only Howard, and defined only by what he wrote, then it’s not a genre. It’s the works of a single man. Howard created sword-and-sorcery in the 1920s, but he did not consciously set out to do so. He was trying to tell entertaining stories of blood and thunder, and make a living. When he died in 1936 there were very few indications sword-and-sorcery would survive, let alone flourish. It had a lot more growing to do.
That got underway in earnest in 1939 when Fritz Leiber’s “Two Sought Adventure” appeared in Unknown. Leiber proved that sword-and-sorcery could be witty, and ironic, have different thematic concerns, and not take itself so seriously.
Heck, sword-and-sorcery was evolving during Howard’s lifetime. Leiber had conceived of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as far back as 1934 with significant input from his friend Harry Fischer. That same year C.L. Moore’s Black God’s Kiss appeared in Weird Tales, and proved that sword-and-sorcery could have the development of atmosphere as its principal objective, over action and plot.
If you’ll allow Clark Ashton Smith into the sword-and-sorcery pantheon (I do), Smith showed with stories like “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (November 1931 Weird Tales) that sword-and-sorcery need not even be heroic, or require that its protagonists survive the adventure (“The Seven Geases”).
Defining sword-and-sorcery by Howard alone is like defining heavy metal by only Black Sabbath. Yes, Sabbath invented the genre, and many still consider them the best metal band of all time. But to leave out the innovations brought in by Judas Priest (twin guitars, leather), and Iron Maiden (operatic theatrics, and Eddie), or the heavy thrash and aggression of Metallica and Slayer, and today the likes of Amon Amarth or Blind Guardian, paints a very limited, incomplete picture of my favorite genre of music.
The term sword-and-sorcery wasn’t coined until 1961, some 25 years after Howard’s death. The early 60s were the beginning of a sword-and-sorcery renaissance. Leiber was finding his second wind and the outspoken, talented Michael Moorcock tossed a hand grenade into traditional conceptions of the genre. The fanzine Amra was just getting underway and various definitions and terminologies bandied about in its pages.
This was a major, interesting challenge with which I was faced when writing Flame and Crimson: How do I acknowledge Howard’s massive influence, but also recognize the contributions of subsequent authors and the divergent paths they blazed?
Sword-and-sorcery is today bigger and more expansive than “The Shadow Kingdom” and “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and that’s a good thing. Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. Karl Edward Wagner’s Bloodstone. L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring. Charles Saunders’ Imaro. All at some level influenced or inspired by the Howardian template, but also different. These authors had their own unique influences that inform their writing, and by extension broaden sword-and-sorcery and innovate on the Howardian template. I believe that the best post-Howard sword-and-sorcery authors acknowledge Howard’s formidable presence and influence, but also strove to be something different. The authors I chose to highlight in Flame and Crimson--Howard, Moore, Smith, Anderson, Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, a few others—had a blend of idiosyncratic influences, and as a result created works of lasting value. As sword-and-sorcery scholar Deuce Richardson once mentioned to me, too many authors in Howard’s wake put on Kabuki makeup, wearing the outer trappings of something they were not. You can’t say that about the likes of Smith, Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, Anderson, or Wagner. They helped create sword-and-sorcery as we know it today.
To be clear, I believe Howard is the greatest writer of the genre. He is definitely its beginning. But he is not the end. I don’t consider him sui generis.
On the other hand, if sword-and-sorcery becomes too expansive—whatever you want it to be—then it ceases to have meaning. If any book with a sword and/or a sorcerer is sword-and-sorcery, then we allow in The Mists of Avalon and Dragons of Autumn Twilight. For many readers that’s probably fine. But if you’re one of those people, Flame and Crimson isn’t for you. In it, I lay out what I believe the broad outlines and more rigid parameters of the genre are. I exclude certain works, while trying not to be overly rigid and exclusionary.
I tried to strike that fine balance. Genres can be maddeningly subjective and hard to pin down. Their lines will never be perfectly drawn. There will always be outliers, exceptions that defy the rule.
And that’s OK. This is art we’re talking about, not engineering.