Sunday, August 30, 2020

Masculinity in S&S? It’s complicated

Sword and sorcery is strongly masculine and appeals to men. We can see this same ethos in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the 1980s and early 90s. Take a look at this scene from Predator and ask yourself what it plays to.

The most manly handshake ever, bar none.

And then ask yourself, is this cool? Is it OK to like this? My answer is an emphatic hell yes. Men who read S&S tend to like fictional depictions of violence and strength. As I’ve said elsewhere, dynamism, power, and muscular strength are among the elements that draw me to the work of Frank Frazetta, for example.

Make no mistake: I love this stuff. I was drawn to it as a kid, and inspired to pick up weights to try to look like my heroes of the comics and silver screen. Today I continue to champion and defend it. I push back, hard, against censorious critics who want this type of fiction memory-holed. You can pry my sword-and-sorcery from my cold, dead fingers. There’s a reason I and if I daresay the broader “we” are drawn to tales featuring swordplay, bloodletting, and fast-paced action. These stories tap into the same psychological wellsprings and biological impulses that help explain our love for professional football, boxing, and strongman sports.

Sword-and-sorcery is loaded with beefcake and masculine heroes. Here is a typical description of Conan, from “The Devil in Iron”:

As the first tinge of dawn reddened the sea, a small boat with a solitary occupant approached the cliffs. The man in the boat was a picturesque figure. A crimson scarf was knotted about his head; his wide silk breeches, of flaming hue, were upheld by a broad sash which likewise supported a scimitar in a shagreen scabbard. His gilt-worked leather boots suggested the horseman rather than the seaman, but he handled his boat with skill. Through his widely open silk shirt showed his broad muscular breast, burned brown by the sun.

The muscles of his heavy bronzed arms rippled as he pulled the oars with an almost feline ease of motion. A fierce vitality that was evident in each feature and motion set him apart from common men; yet his expression was neither savage nor somber; though the smoldering blue eyes hinted at ferocity easily wakened.

I’ll stick my neck out a bit, risk the critical axe of politically correct criticism, and say that as a result of its emphasis on violence and power, sword-and-sorcery appeals to boys and men, in far larger quantities than women.

But like life, art, and politics, even sword-and-sorcery is not this simple.

The hyper-masculine, ass-grabbing sword-and-sorcery hero is a crude trope perpetuated by some of the most derivative writers of the genre. Lin Carter’s Thongor is the poster-boy for this type of S&S hero; dumb, cloddish, prone to hack his way out of every situation. This type of hero, while a fun read that I continue to enjoy (just as I adore ridiculous over the top films like Commando, and still cheer when Sully gets dropped off the cliff), helped contribute to the genre’s downfall in the 1980s. If you believe Brak and Thongor and Kothar are the height of S&S and superior to the likes of “Ill Met in Lankhmar” or “Beyond the Black River,” more power to you, art is subjective.  I happen to disagree.

S&S has a much broader tradition than mere brawn and brawling. It contains multitudes. Weird decadent races like the Melniboneans. Dark sorcerers like Ningauble and Sheelba, who pull the heroes’ strings and manipulate their destinies, subtly. Lost cities, demon-summoning sorceries. All of these elements attract readers to the genre too, arguably as much as manly action and brawn.

It can be dark and fatalistic. Consider the sword-and-sorcery of Clark Ashton Smith. Is Satampra Zeiros a masculine bad-ass? How does the hyper-macho-ness of Lord Ralibar Vooz of “The Seven Geases” avail him in the end?

I like the underlying bleakness and darkness of S&S, and I think, if you look close enough at the best stories, you will find commentary on the limitations of unchecked ambition, and its blind spots. Consider Kane in Bloodstone. Dude is too drunk on power and out of control technology, and gets reined in hard. The unrestrained man, who would take all due to some inherent natural right, broader society and consequence be damned, is a problem. If you think the likes of Mark Zuckerberg are beyond reproach as paragons of the free market, I can’t help you.

Or consider Fritz Leiber’s “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar.” At the conclusion of the story Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser—whom we naturally assume are the “two best thieves” in the city—are outwitted by a pair of the actual best thieves, who happen to be a pair of women. Oops.

Moorcock’s stories of Elric contain a not-so-subtle warning shot across the bow of imperialism and unchecked power. There is a balance that must be maintained.

Even old Conan is headed down the path of oblivion. Old age is coming, and eventually, a great cataclysm is coming.

Rather than a refuge of hyper-masculinity, I prefer to think of sword-and-sorcery as a subgenre that celebrates strength and autonomy. C.L. Moore proved in the nascent days of S&S that the genre was not the sole province of men or male heroes. Many subsequent female sword-and-sorcery authors added their own verses to the genre in the late 70s and early 80s. See Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Amazons and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress.

The best sword and sorcery portrays women as complex, three dimensional, with elements of the masculine and feminine. Take a look at this depiction of Valeria from “Red Nails,” and note some striking similarities with Howard’s depiction of Conan, above:

She was tall, full-bosomed and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the femininity of her appearance. She was all woman, in spite of her bearing and her garments. The latter were incongruous, in view of her present environs. Instead of a skirt she wore short, wide-legged silk breeches, which ceased a hand's breadth short of her knees, and were upheld by a wide silken sash worn as a girdle. Flaring-topped boots of soft leather came almost to her knees, and a low-necked, wide-collared, wide-sleeved silk shirt completed her costume. On one shapely hip she wore a straight double-edged sword, and on the other a long dirk. Her unruly golden hair, cut square at her shoulders, was confined by a band of crimson satin.

Against the background of somber, primitive forest she posed with an unconscious picturesqueness, bizarre and out of place. She should have been posed against a background of sea-clouds, painted masts and wheeling gulls. There was the color of the sea in her wide eyes. And that was as it should have been, because this was Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, whose deeds are celebrated in song and ballad wherever seafarers gather.

Let’s circle back and wrap this up.

I push back against cries of helplessness and victimhood. I embrace the Extreme Ownership of Jocko Willink, the hyper-masculine navy seal whose work has dramatically changed my life for the better. I believe there is deep, abiding truth in the theory and works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and their “heroes’ journey” of brave self-discovery and self-transmogrification, today championed by Jordan Peterson. I wish more people would stop thinking of themselves as powerless, in need of handouts, and instead take the necessary and hard steps to live a better life. In short, leading the life of a sword-and-sorcery hero—if not literally, at least figuratively.

I love sword-and-sorcery imagery. I like the bad S&S films of the 80s, at least in an ironic MST3K way. I embrace the genre for what it is, warts and all. But I refuse to pigeonhole sword-and-sorcery as a refuge for macho buff dudes. Masculinity is an incomplete piece of the whole, emphasized in certain works and de-emphasized in others.

Sword-and-sorcery has recurring motifs, and boundaries, but if it does not offer infinite possibilities, it offers far more to the careful and close reader, and far more thematic diversity, than its adherents (and detractors) realize. Real men recognize the limits of power and ambition. Like Conan in “The Phoenix on the Sword” they understand the power of the pen, and the need to negotiate alliances.

To sum up: Please don’t hijack my favorite genre as masculine beefcake only. You’re doing it an injustice and moreover, painting a limited and partial picture of its diverse and complex tradition and influences. 

Postscript: Some might interpret this post as wanting to have my cake and eat it too. In full disclosure I’m a political moderate and recoil from dogmatism.


Matthew said...

Well, I tend to dislike both feminists and men's rights activists because they both embrace victim hood. They both seem to see the other gender as a monolithic whole and not as individuals.

I do think s&s is about power and strength in general. Which may be the reason it appeals to fans of hard rock and heavy metal which is also about power and strength. This may mean it appeals to more men than women but there are certainly women who enjoy these stories.

At its worse S&S tends to lunkhead barbarians and women warriors who are basically men with boobs. But the best stuff is more complicated than that.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I agree that masculinity in Sword and Sorcery can be a tricky subject, but that is what makes the genre compelling!

I am hardly what is called an “alpha male"-- in the physical sense-- but Sword and Sorcery inspires me towards all kinds of strength and self-reliance, whether I see Conan in a brawl, or the Grey Mouser up to his weasel-like but self-assured schemes!

When defining gender, I believe that women are perhaps fifty to a hundred years ahead of us men in exploring their femininity—while men are often stuck with a “one size fits all” description, women have long ago moved beyond the one selection of being homemakers, to being leaders or even soldiers. I used to know female Wiccans in Salem, MA who wonderfully explored femininity and the stages of being, as they called it, a maiden, mother, and crone.

It is just a fact that there are over three billion males in the world—therefore, it is inevitable that we all cannot conform to one model. There should be room enough for a plurality of manly paragons, not just tough guy types. I think we find this range of masculinity most in the collective dream of humanity, mythology, which is a certainly a close cousin of Sword and Sorcery-- which shows, I believe, how meaningful this subgenre can be.

Not all, but a great vein of Sword and Sorcery is infused with that magical, unnamable quality that expresses manliness in all forms and archetypes: The young lover, the jester, the prophet, the warrior, and my favorite, the wizard or the wise man (which is why I love Clark Ashton Smith, who, along with Lovecraft, wrote more about obsessed scholars or sorcerers than barbarians). My blood is thrilled equally by fictional examples of all types of manly men, from Obi Wan Kenobi, or Grey Mouser, to James Bond or Conan, as well as real life examples, like Socrates or Leonidas, or the suffering Nietzsche, or the sages Emerson and Ben Franklin. The fact is, as Mr. Howard lamented, we all grow old, and lose our strength, but Sword and Sorcery has inspired me towards mental strength as well as physical strength.

In my own fictional compositions, I have tried to create an array of characters, from the barbarian to the woman warrior, to the wizard or the young lad, but my heart is close to the wizard or sorcerer who has a manliness just as majestic as Conan. A great place to explore these ideas is in the letters between the rowdy Howard and the gentlemanly Lovecraft. In these letters we find very different versions of manhood, but I find them both, not only in their fiction, but in real-life, to be great exemplars of what a noble man should be.
John Kessaris

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the commentary, men.

John, great point about the Grey Mouser, CAS' sorcerers, and the alternative depictions of male-ness that can be found in S&S. The genre is broad enough to include more than beefcake barbarians and unstoppable warriors, although I enjoy these as well.

Benjamin said...

I believe that good S&S - just like good science-fiction - allows us to examine aspects of the human condition that would not be easily reached in real-world fiction. It allows us to see what the end point of certain viewpoints or stances might look like.

As you've pointed out, the hyper-masculinity and 'might is right' aspect of many heroes is nearly always as much of a problem as it is a solution, and we get to examine the issues of unchecked power, fear of the unknown and uncompromising agency at their most extreme.

A final story to end on; I once attended a moderately high-brow literary event where audience members were asked to read a short paragraph of classic literature, philosophy or poetry and (moderately well known) panel members would dissect it and discuss it's merits and flaws. I read out the Conan passage from Phoenix on the Sword:

What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs-I was a man before I was a king.

They thought it was great and were surprised they hadn't heard it before - they praised the simplicity but clever phrasing and made all sorts of comments which were similar to those made on Aurelias, Dante and Hemmingway. When I told them it was Conan the Barbarian they looked shocked, and stumbled over themselves trying to retract their previous comments. Whilst I found it hilarious, it goes to show that S&S is unfortunately looked down on and looked over by most, when some of it truly is brilliant.

Brian Murphy said...

Benjamin, I LOVE that story. So awesome. REH wrote poetry, both standalone, formal verse, and within his prose. It sings on the page.