Flashing Swords and Thoughts on Sword and Sorcery

Yesterday, I finished reading the fourth volume in Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords! anthology series. On the whole, I rather liked the book. My favorite story is beyond question Moorcock’s “The Lands Beyond the World” with John Jakes’s “Storm in a Bottle” a mid distance second. Katherine Kurtz, the lone woman in the anthology, had “Swords Against the Marluk” as her entry. I’m torn on my opinions about that story. The writing and world building are well done, but the posthumous save by the long dead king hampers the story, if you ask me. Reading the anthology, I’m struck by several different thoughts about Sword and Sorcery, or, in Lin Carter’s estimation, the Sacred Genre.

To be honest, I always smiled whenever Carter inserted the words “the Sacred Genre” in his introductions. Clearly, he is trying to valorize Sword and Sorcery as a genre; a genre denigrated save for brief respites. But it comes off as a little silly, parodic really.

Reading “Storm in a Bottle,” I realized something- Conan is a genius. He isn’t stupid. He isn’t ignorant. He is an able military strategist, a polyglot, and has been known to attend philosophical debates. So why is he seen in the popular imagination as all brawn with little brains? I think the term barbarian colors our understanding of Conan (and honestly the cultural Other). Barbarian means an Other, someone who is not from one’s own ethnic or nation group. The ancient Greeks viewed anyone who was not Greek as being a barbarian. From Macedonian and Italic to Scythian, Persian, and Egyptian, all were barbarians. And tell me, were the Persians and Egyptians any less advanced than the Greeks? The Chinese have also used similar terms to describe others, although a significant amount of Chinese cultural influences can raise a group from barbarian to civilized (a good example would be the Japanese). And do not forget that even “barbarous” peoples have technology and skills that major civilizations may lack (the chariot was likely developed on the steppe).

So, why does the “Barbarian” character have to be either stupid, uneducated, or unwilling to learn? Duality, I think. Often times in a Sword and Sorcery tale a warrior of prodigious skill is either antagonized by or antagonizes a sorcerer of some prodigious skill. As the sorcerer is often an analogue for the priest, the scientist, the scholar, and the bureaucrat, the barbarian often has to fill the opposing roles. The barbarian (or the warrior) is by default less educated. It also provides room for critiques of civilization and notions of civilization. Although Brak’s rationalism and agnosticism are hard to believe. Again, there is a contrast- rationalism and agnosticism are products usually of higher education but Brak is incapable of even understanding “chess.”

I find all of this annoying, but understandable. As much as any epic fantasy is going to be inspired by Tolkien to varying degrees, so too will Sword and Sorcery be inspired by Howard to varying degrees. And to degrees that makes no sense. Howard’s Conan can be seen as a commentary on the attitudes of the formally educated towards those without it. The point is that Conan looks like he is dumber than a log, which is all the more surprising when he starts speaking several languages and formulates battle strategy. But other writers don’t see beyond just the “beefy stupid barbarian.”

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now, but really haven’t had the time to explore it in any real depth. As those who have read my Sorcerers of series, I am a proud member of team Sorcery. Maybe that is why I like Elric and Clark Ashton Smith so much.

Anyway, I will end this by saying- libraries and used bookstores are still relevant! Go to your local library!

Next time- Expect some Fairy Tail.

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Posted on July 1, 2011, in Books and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Yes! Yes, yes, yes. People tend to equate “barbarian” not with “uncivilized” (that is, non-civilized, as in not dwelling in cities), but with “caveman,” “brute,” “ignorant” and “savage.” The implication is that barbarians are synonymous with Neanderthal or idiot, when that’s clearly not the case. Heck, the Roman military was formed by borrowing elements created by barbarians: the gladius from Celtiberian swords, the helm and mail armour from the Gauls, scale armour from the Scythians, and so forth.

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