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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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Review: Flashing Swords! 1

I just finished reading the first volume of Flashing Swords!, the Lin Carter edited anthology series from the seventies that featured many members of SAGA, the sword and sorcery writers guild. This volume had a pretty good introduction by Carter and four stories: “The Sadness of the Executioner” by Fritz Leiber, “Morreion” by Jack Vance, “The Merman’s Children” by Poul Anderson, and “The Higher Heresies of Oolimar” by Lin Carter. The anthology was, in all honesty, a very mixed bag. I really liked two of the stories, ambivalent about one, and disliked the other.

The strongest story in the anthology is Vance’s “Morrieon.” Taking place in the Dying Earth, this story explores the desire of a group of magicians for IOUN stones. In their pursuit of the magic dampening stones, the group humorously rescues the wizard Morrieon from the last planet at the end of the universe, only to be faced with his mood swings. This story perfectly mixes fantasy with a science element so fantastic as to be magic. ¬†And it is a trip of decadent, nigh incompetent wizards.

The next strongest story is Leiber’s “The Sadness of the Executioner.” This gem of a story follow the Nehwon personification of Death as it tries to fill a quota by killing Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The shortest story of all, this is still an excellent gem. As funny as “Morrieon,” this story is a great introduction to Leiber’s tales.

I am rather ambivalent toward’s Carter’s “The Higher Heresies of Oolimar.” The story itself has a good basis, but is totally incomplete. Indeed, I feel cheated because the promised story is deferred for a side quest. And the story takes on a campy pastiche approach towards the idea of sword and sorcery. To be honest, it should have been more thoroughly edited and revised.

The weakest story is “The Merman’s Children.” I really disliked this story. Anderson is a wonderful writer, but this story is just riddled with problems. The protagonists are stupid and I do not feel anything for their plight. I recognize that fictional characters are typically stupider than their real world counterparts, but still. I just got tired of it after a few pages.

In general, I think this anthology is a good introduction to these four writers (and my first introduction to them). With this in mind, I am looking forward to Leiber and Vance, but more ambivalent towards Anderson and Carter.