Sunday, November 3, 2019

Amra’s roar still echoes in the development of fantasy fiction

In his The Evolution of Modern Fantasy author Jamie Williamson makes a monster of a claim for the importance of the Lin Carter-edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (BAFS). Prior to the BAFS, Williamson claims, the literary entity that we today widely recognize as “fantasy” did not exist. Many authors were writing fantastic tales of Faerie or blood and thunder prior to the BAFS (principal run 1969-1974), but none were consciously working in the confines of an established genre. No one talked about “the fantasy genre” like we do today; no authors proclaimed themselves “fantasy writers.”

But with the mass-market paperback publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, the Lancer Conan Saga shortly thereafter, and the appearance of the BAFS and their famous unicorn colophon, “fantasy” became a thing. Says Williamson:
By 1974, then, a discrete genre, with a definition and a canon, had demonstrably emerged. Such a thing had not existed at all in 1960, and even in early 1969 it had consisted of a cross section of work appearing as a subbranch of science fiction (Sword and Sorcery) or as books for young readers, with a few titles presented as loosely “Tolkienian.”
(Note: I covered this in a little more detail on DMR Blog this past June on what would have been the late Carter’s 89th birthday).

In short, the BAFS collected disparate writers of fantastic material (Williamson uses the term “literary mavericks” which is apt) and published them in a mass-market paperback series, creating a story in of itself—the story of fantasy.

Let that sink in a moment. This was a landmark occurrence, and the BAFS, though they reportedly did not sell particularly well and dissolved as a series after the sale of Ballantine Books to Random House, remain an incredibly important artifact for historians, collectors, and genre fans. While I don’t think all of Carter’s choices were perfect, there is vast storehouse of great reading in the series. The Broken Sword. The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Zothique. The Well at the World’s End. The Night Land. And, prior to Carter’s term as editor, The Lord of the Rings, The Worm Ouroboros, and A Voyage to Arcturus.

So yeah, the BAFS were hugely important to the development of fantasy as we know it today. But I believe another, lesser-known publication shares equal footing in the development of fantasy fiction. 

I’m talking of course about Amra.

Prior to his tenure as BAFS editor Carter was writing tales of Thongor, writing Robert E. Howard pastiche and completing unfinished Conan and Kull stories in the likes of King Kull (Lancer, 1967) and the Lancer Conan Saga, and he was also writing about fantasy in the pages of Amra.
Published from January 1959 to July 1982—ten years prior and eight years post BAFS—Amra was a laboratory and meeting hall for fantasy fiction. It was also a figurative lions’ den, with its readers levying harsh criticisms on some of the poor fantasy work being published, particularly in sword-and-sorcery circles. For example, Carter’s A Wizard of Lemuria took quite a bit of heat in September 1965:

The only such distinguishing feature that I am able to discern in THE WIZARD OF LEMURIA is that it is entirely derivative of other works in the genre, with no obvious originality whatsoever. Add to this the absolute lifelessness of the characters -- even at his very worst (which could, admittedly, be pretty abysmal at times), Edgar Rice Burroughs never created anybody quite this wooden. Add also for good measure a modicum of sleight-of-hand methods for getting people to the right place at the right time, somewhat reminiscent of the “with one bound, I was free” jokes.

In its pages you can see the fantasy genre taking shape, and subdividing. Amra is perhaps today best known for being the birthplace of the term “sword-and-sorcery” in a now famous exchange between Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber (sword-and-sorcery by the way might have easily been dubbed “swordplay and sorcery,” as that term was bandied about a lot more often in Amra than the former). Fantastic worlds were being charted in the form of Hyborian Scholarship, and the efficacy of various medieval and bronze age arms and armor discussed.

For a small mimeographed fanzine of rough, unpolished type, the list authors that contributed is truly remarkable. L. De Camp, Lin Carter, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Robert Bloch. The likes of Glenn Lord, E. Hoffman Price, and August Derleth. Much of Amra’s artwork is crude, though it has a charm of its own, but some of it is outstanding. Every so often you’ll be hit with the likes of Roy Krenkel or Jeff Jones or Frank Frazetta and be blown away. It was, as pulp fantasy historian Lee Breakiron described, “A Lion Among Fanzines.”

Amra’s columns and letters tell a story. You had open criticism of Carter’s work and sword-and-sorcery’s “Clonans.” Columns from the likes of Unknown editor John W. Campbell decrying the current state of swashbuckling fiction, with the likes of Michael Moorcock echoing Campbell’s sentiments. As far back as 1959 an Athenian-like fictitious gathering of sword-and-sorcery aficionados, gathered to discuss what type of name would suit Conan and other tales “sufficiently like the Conan stories”:

Ye Muster was called to order, in the absence of Ye King of Aquilonia, at the unCromly hour of 11:00 AM, by Ye Royal Chancellor. The principal subject discussed was the question of just what made the Conan stories what they were, as well as the questions what stories are sufficiently like the Conan stories to fit well into AMRA and what would be a good type name for such stories.

After some discussion, it was agreed that at least some of the factors that made the Conan stories effective are the presence of a hero in the old sense of the word exerting his wit and his muscle against magical and mundane opponents, all displayed against a strange and wonderful time and place.

Amra championed sword-and-sorcery and heroic fantasy at a time when the future of such fiction was uncertain. Leiber had almost given up on more stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in favor of more popular and publishable science fiction and horror, but later credited Amra with being one of the inspirations for resuming their adventures.

Why Amra ceased publishing in 1982 at the height of the excitement for the Conan the Barbarian film is a bit of a mystery. But by then, sword-and-sorcery was already on its way out. Not in the public consciousness or in popular culture, but certainly in literary circles it was well on its way to becoming anathema.

If we’re going to credit the BAFS for playing a major role in canonizing and defining the terrain of fantasy—and we should—let’s also recognize Amra for serving as its barroom, a place where authors and a passionate fanbase could meet and share enthusiasm, ideas, and informal scholarship.

I’d like to thank Lee Breakiron for getting me digital access to the complete run of Amra for Flame and Crimson. I’m in his debt. Breakiron has written a nice recap and summary of Amra, “A lion among fanzines,” in the Nemedian Chroniclers #2, available at the Robert E. Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association.


Jacob Kipfer said...

AMRA is amazing! And incredibly difficult for me to complete the run.

The Wasp said...

I've always wanted to read Amra. The closest I've come is The Blade of Conan and the few Amra articles it contains.

Brian Murphy said...

Amra is great... it's a window into the past, between the letters and art and interesting columns. The Blade of Conan and The Spell of Conan are collections of some of the better essays, and definitely worthy of any S&S collection, but they leave out much of the color and fun. Those books are like reading blog posts with all the comments turned off.