Putting A Tag On It, 2008 Style

I’ve been reading some books recently, and over the next few days I’m going to talk about them, but I’m not sure what to call them. I started reading these books thanks to a confluence of factors, of which the most important are probably, one, enjoying Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and being interested in his stated influences, and two, having my lingering guilt about my relative lack of familiarity with the masterworks of genre fantasy given a prod by the appearance of Gollancz’s “ultimate fantasy” series earlier this year. It’s not as though – despite what you may think from the predominant focus of my posts here – that I don’t like genre fantasy. I read as many TSR novels as anyone when I was a teenager, plus the really obvious stuff like Tolkien, not to mention collecting several large armies for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, which is about as generic as you can get — though it’s true that I didn’t go the whole Eddings/Feist/Jordan route, and that until recently I was never seduced by D&D role-playing (and that as a result innumerable role-playing-related jokes have gone over my head over the years). On the other hand, for whatever reason, I was never sucked into the history of the genre in the way that I was for sf. I know enough about the adventurers-with-swords subgenre to be aware of Conan, Jirel, Elric, and Kane; to know of L. Sprague de Camp’s Sword and Sorcery anthologies and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthologies; David Gemmel’s Legend, and Samuel Delany’s Nevèrÿon books. (Not to mention Drizzt Do’Urden, of course – or Gotrek and Felix.) But I’ve had little first-hand experience, so this week’s posts are about me dipping a toe into that history. The books I read were determined by what I had to hand, although most of them also fall onto that ethereal list of Things I Should Read Some Day that floats around in the back of my head: some of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser stories, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, some of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, and Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx. Deciding what to call them seems a helpful first step.

In 1961, in a piece written for George Scithers’ fanzine AMRA, Moorcock posed a question:

I feel we should have another general name to include the sub-genre of books which deal with Middle Earths and lands and worlds based on this planet, worlds which exist only in some author’s vivid imagination. In this sub-genre I would classify books like The Worm Ouroboros, Jurgen, The Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King, the Gray Mouser/Fafhrd series, the Conan series, The Broken Sword, The Well of the Unicorn, etc. […] stories of high adventure, generally featuring a central hero very easy to identify oneself with. For the most part they are works of escapism, anything else usually being secondary (exceptions, I would agree, are Jurgen and The Once and Future King. But all of them are tales told for the tale’s sake, and the authors have obviously thoroughly enjoyed the telling. (reprinted in The Stealer of Souls, Del Rey 2008, p.5)

This was, I believe, before the full emergence of fantasy as the commercial behemoth that it is today. Indeed. Even in a 1971 issue of Vector recently sent to me by Mark Plummer, a review of Andre Norton’s Witch World novels feels able to state that “Fantasy fiction has never had a wide following”, and that it’s only recently that significant amounts of original fantasy have started to be published in paperback form. (Which also leads the reviewer to state some cautionary notes about the potential weaknesses of fantasy series …) Moorcock’s suggestion for “the best name for the sub-genre, considering its general form and roots” is still with us — although I’m not sure how many contemporary readers would consider all of the works he lists as “epic fantasy”, which to me implies a certain amount of sprawl in both cast and geography. Indeed, the entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy for that category argues that by the mid-nineties “epic fantasy” had been muddied to the point of uselessness by publisher over-use and other factors, and today it seems to indicate the Tolkienian tradition above all others. Certainly the two attempts to define the term that have crossed my radar recently, one by Rose Fox and one by Michael M. Jones, both pretty much take Tolkien alone as epic fantasy’s starting point.

Meanwhile, back in the sixties, in response to Moorcock’s request Fritz Leiber suggested “Sword and Sorcery”:

I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too! (Fritz Leiber, AMRA, July 1961)

Helped along by a series of reprint anthologies edited by L. Sprague de Camp starting in 1963, this has also stuck around. More or less. In truth it’s a term I see used more often by critics than by readers or publishers (though of course there may be an observer bias in that); the Encyclopedia notes the term’s “garishness”, and that may have something to do with it, but it also seems like an odd fit for what it’s used to describe. Certainly it was a surprise to me to see the Encyclopedia assert that “There may be a useful distinction between Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, but no-one has yet made it” (some commenters on the Wikipedia heroic fantasy talk page seem similarly surprised; and the Gemmel Award uses heroic fantasy unashamedly, although they don’t exactly give a clear definition of it), because if you’d asked me as a relatively naive reader, “heroic fantasy” sounds like exactly the right label for most of what I’ve read recently. I risk extrapolating too far from limited data here, but sword and sorcery sounds larksome; heroic fantasy conveys to me something more serious, as well as identifying the focus of most of these stories as tales about identity (if not character) and heroism.

Lankhmar cover Among the authors I read, the one whose work does strike me as sword and sorcery is the canonical example: Fritz Leiber. The “ultimate fantasy” edition of Lankhmar I had to hand comprises the first four collections of stories about the barbarian Fafhrd and the ex-wizard’s apprentice, the Gray Mouser although — and I didn’t realise this at first, since publication credits are conspicuously absent from the book — the stories are presented in order of internal chronology, not publication. This means that, for instance, the knowing first sentence of Swords and Deviltry (1970) — “Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries” (3) — was written well after the term became accepted. It also means the stories may have been written to fit an idea of the subgenre that already had some shape to it. Certainly the shape of them felt more immediately comfortable to me, with my modern-reader expectations, than some of the other books I’m going to discuss; moreover Leiber’s stories are more concerned with conveying the excitement of adventure, almost for adventure’s own sake, than any of the others. The world in which the stories take place is not a whitewashed fantasyland (rape and other such unpleasantnesses are mentioned in casual conversation), but the stories themselves are filled with humour of incident and observation. This leads to an at-times odd, but also effective, tension between exuberance and sobriety, one particularly literal manifestation of which is Fafhrd’s reaction on overhearing that a woman he’s just rescued is to be sold as a slave — the revelation “filled him with a mixed feeling he’d never known before: an overmastering rage and also a desire to laugh hugely” (35).

This is not to say, sadly, that I think these stories are much good. I enjoyed what I read more than my only previous encounter with Leiber (reading The Big Time as one of the nominees for the BSFA 50th retro award earlier this year), but in the end conceded defeat at the end of Swords Against Deviltry. So I didn’t actually read any of the earliest Fafhrd/Mouser stories, which seem mostly to be collected in the second book, Swords Against Death (also 1970, revised from Two Sought Adventure). If anyone tells me those tales are dramatically better, I may be tempted to continue. Part of the problem with Swords Against Deviltry, after all, is that it’s all origin stories: a vignette (“Induction”, 1970) introducing the world and the characters; an overlong novella introducing Fafhrd (“The Snow Women”, 1970); an incredibly generic novellette introducing Mouse (“The Unholy Grail”, 1962); and a better, though despite its Hugo-winning status still only average, novella detailing the first meeting of the two (“Ill Met in Lankhmar”, 1970). It would be hard for me to deny that I haven’t experienced the partnership in full flow.

However, it seems that Leiber’s style is simply not to my taste. In between the passages I admired (these were often the passages that used omniscient perspective to best effect; the final one-sentence paragraph that closes “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, describing Our Heroes’ disgusted exodus from the city, is pretty fine) there was much that fell flat. There was, for example, what to my ear is a wearying over-reliance on adverbs to underline the tone of conversation; by the end of their first page of conversation in “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, either Fafhrd or the Mouser or both has commented, answered, explained, demanded, suggested, rapped out, directed, remarked, or mused. There is a tendency to deaden action scenes with laboured, move-by-move descriptions. And while some of the humour is slyly subversive, the more deliberate absurdisms — when one character manages to shrug while jumping from a high place down to a low place, it’s surely deliberately absurd, as must be a daring escape via rocket-powered ski jump – fell flat. It may be deliberately farcical that Fafhrd spends most of “The Snow Women” running back and forth between different groups, but in the reading it felt like a formulaic, repetitive plot. And, as a final insult, the turn of “Ill Met in Lankhmar” depends on the embarrassingly thorough fridging of both Fafhrd and Mouser’s partners, at least one of whom had been a fairly satisfactory character to that point.

Perhaps the most interesting thread running through Swords Against Deviltry is an argument – overplayed in “The Snow Women”, underplayed in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” – about the nature of civilization, and the place of characters like Fafhrd and Mouser within it. Fafhrd in “The Snow Women” finds civilization totemic, representing an escape from everything he dislikes about his barbarian life, though plenty of people are ready to warn him that it is unworthy of such adoration. His mother describes it as a “putrid festering”, while others warn him that civilization will darken his soul. And it does: there is much of the country boy going to the big city in Fafhrd’s trajectory, and in “Ill Met in Lankhmar” the character is a less certain, more troubled man (although still somewhat more upstanding than Mouser, whose heart seems more easily darkened by events). But where in, say, the Elric stories I read the analogous struggles going on in Elric’s heart are central, here the focus never wavers from the plot; Leiber’s work seems to flow best when it is in motion, rather than self-considering repose. I don’t know if this is a sustainable difference between sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy, but I’m going to call the rest of the books I’m going to discuss heroic fantasy and be damned: because the most interesting thing about each of them is what they do with their heroes.

21 thoughts on “Putting A Tag On It, 2008 Style

  1. I think that Leiber has had something of an easy ride in many ways.

    I think that for many readers, Leiber (and Howard too) are these totemic symbols of a much less polite form of fantasy… a kind of fantasy that’s not about world-building, names with apostrophes in them or moral absolutism. The casual mentions of rape play a part in this because I think that people see in Leiber this blend of Sartre and Jeremy Clarkson… someone who is unafraid to tell stories about hideous bleak worlds full of death and rape where problems are resolved with steel and nobody has any higher ideals than getting rich or getting revenge.

    The lack of world-building is fair enough but I think it’s less a reflection of Leiber and Howard’s existentialist tendencies and more a reflection of the fact that their stories were told in short stories and novellas rather than sprawling 10 part series of 1000 page novels.

    I read a few Leiber and Howard stories as a teenager and I got hold of some of Howard’s collected fiction (Conan and his puritan demon hunter whose name escapes me) and I found them practically unreadable… though in my case that doesn’t really say a lot.

    So I think you may be right to suggest that a) Leiber’s not worthy of the reputation he has and that b) Leiber’s work can’t that easily be disentangled from contemporary fantasy.

  2. As it happens, I’ve only recently started reading both those authors. (In fact, I finished “Snow Women” just a half hour ago, before reading this post.) I also found it overlong, but am wondering if that’s just because it is, as has been said here, an origin story written late in the game. (My copyright page says it’s from 1970, almost four decades after Leiber first created these characters.)

    I hope I’ll enjoy the rest of the volume somewhat more, though I have to admit this conversation has added to my doubts. I have, however, been enjoying Howard quite a bit. (The story of his I’ve been reading is “The People of the Black Circle.”)

    Frankly, I think there’s a lot to be said for the fact that these were short stories and novellas, and not 1,000 page novels. The hyperabundance of gigantic novels and very long series is a big reason why I haven’t read as much fantasy as I would have otherwise, and it’s one of the things I enjoyed very much about Moorcock’s early Elric stuff (my review of the new edition of which you can find here http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2008/07/elric_the_steal.shtml).

    And maybe this is just nostalgia on my part, but I also think that for all its roughness, there’s something very compelling about much of the pulpy writing of earlier decades, before it was all very large manuscripts or nothing, that is often absent from more recent and more polished work. (Of course, that’s covered at length in my essay at The Fix about the end of science fiction debate, to which I’ve just added a postscript.)

  3. Am I the only person who likes Leiber’s Science Fantasy / Urban Fantasy (e.g. Our Lady Of Darkness, the changewars stories etc.) but not his S & S?

  4. I read quite a bit of Leiber at one time, and for me it’s that knowingness that distinguishes his best work from the bunch.

  5. Jonathan, I really don’t get that sort of existential darkness from the Leiber I read (though I do get it from, e.g. The Broken Sword, and think it works there). But I do think what darkness there is makes an interesting contrast with Scott Lynch, who so often gets talked about as Leiber’s contemporary heir. I can sort of see how the comparison works now, but Lynch is an awful lot slicker.

    Nader, I’m pretty sure I’m in a minority on Leiber, so don’t let me put you off. On the short story thing and the pulpy quality thing — yes, absolutely, and I will be talking more about that on Wednesday, in my discussion of Elric. ;-)

    Kev, and which would you say are the best works, then?

  6. Is Lynch considered dark? I didn’t get that from the book and a half of his that i read. There are moments of unhappiness in his books but they came across as the kind of unhappiness that you get in US TV dramas; namely unhappiness that exists to fuel the plot by making characters act in an unreasonable manner thereby generating conflict with their friends. (i.e. the entire writing process of BSG post-season 1).

    There’s no real darkness there. Certainly not compared to something like, as you say, The Broken Sword (which I tend to think of as a far better touchstone for anti-Tolkienism as it came out around the same time and flowed from an entirely different tradition… plus I think it’s arguably a better novel than The Lord of the Rings for al its faults).

    However, what Lynch is is blokey. His stories are full of people making cash and killing people and they’re permeated by a sense of vague hedonism and muscular possibility. Leiber’s stories are like that too because they’re about manly men who like a caper, like a drink and like the odd wench.

    I think that the appeal of Leiber has a lot to do with the fact that he’s a writer from an age when a) there were less female fans and b) the complaints of those female fans were less organised and therefore ignored.

    This is why I see him as a Jeremy Clarkson-type figure. His stories feel a lot less ‘house broken’ than a lot of modern fantasy stories.

    I’m reminded in particular of a bit in the Tad Williams novel I reviewed a while back. It has this sequence when a young noblewoman is lured into the household of this Arab-style noble who treats her like a queen, dressing her in fine silks and allowing her to have romantic scenes with dashing arab-style noblemen.

    I can totally empathise with male readers who might read that and then feel this great sense of escape and freedom from the stories of Lynch and Leiber. It’s not like Aragorn ever got wasted on Old Toby and woke up next to a buxom bar-wench.

    See also James Bond.

  7. Sorry, I wasn’t being clear. I meant it’s an interesting comparison because the elements of darkness in Leiber are so conspicuously absent from Lynch, and indeed Lynch gets praised for creating a fantasy world without gender inequality and so forth. Now, that’s certainly better than creating one with unconscious prejudice built in, like “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, but I still have a preference for worlds where the prejudice is present and acknowledged and dealt with — Lynch does feel “house-broken” to me, although I’m using the term in a different sense to you. (Note that it doesn’t have to be the same structures of prejudice as in our world.) And interestingly, and no doubt in part because of the way his world is built, although Lynch does undoubtedly have a quite blokey readership, he also seems to have a significant number of women readers.

  8. Fascinating blog post.

    Worldbuilding I think can be exaggerated as a difference, Howard wrote a whole essay on the world that Conan inhabits (it’s reprinted in the fantasy masterworks edition) and even has the traditional map of his world, worldbuilding is less common in S&S but that may simply be a function of form – short stories and novellas as opposed to multi volume epics, as Jonathan notes.

    What I think is different is, as said upthread, a knowingness. S&S is fairly amoral stuff, the protagonists are largely self interested and motivated by internal as opposed to external drives. They adventure because they enjoy it, or want to achieve something, not because the world needs saving or some threat is otherwise going to overwhelm their culture. S&S protagonists are generally rather blase about the cultures they inhabit Conan largely antagonistic to the various places he wanders through. I also think Jonathan has a point with his mix of Satre and Clarkson comment.

    I think S&S also often contains a sense of the absurd, the absurdity of existence, like in that example where Fahfrd rescues a girl only for her to be sold into slavery. The universe is uncaring (that’s where the existentialism comes in), meaning is transitory, and therefore the pursuit of enjoyment is of primary importance because we’re just not here that long and there is no greater point to it all. In heroic fantasy, there is a greater point, the protagonists’ struggles do typically have greater meaning – extrinsic meaning that resonates beyond their personal satisfactions.

    Existentialist influences aren’t necessarily dark by the way, in my view anyway, sometimes that’s the case as in Clark Ashton Smith most notably, but sometimes it’s reflected more in a focus on immediate and Earthly pleasures. A hedonistic response to a lack of meaning, almost a celebration of a lack of meaning.

    Finally for this post, I do think that simple immediacy and verve makes a big difference. S&S stories are typically brief and to the point, they do not outstay their welcome. By the time you’re writing a multi volume epic, the demands of the form must I think alter the content driving you more to epic quests and world spanning adventures simply to have something to fill all that waiting space with.

    I do see them as fairly distinct, but save possibly Richard Morgan (I’ve not read his yet) I think S&S is a historical genre and one that nobody today writes in.

  9. Another point occurred to me, which is that I’d argue that the nature of the hero follows a different cultural archetype in S&S than heroic fantasy.

    Essentially, two very different concepts of what it is to be a hero exist, one modern, one ancient. The ancient concept is that being a hero is a state of birth, a quality about you, it carries no moral implications. Achilles is a hero by virtue of his birth and destiny, he is a peerless warrior and literally invulnerable to most harm. He’s also, if you read the Illiad, an utter twat who lets large numbers of men on his own side die because he’s in a huff.

    Being a hero here is a state of being, it is not a moral condition, it is the state of being qualitatively different to other humans. Beowulf similarly is a hero as that is what he is, though he is also a paragon of kingship, being moral is not itself enough to make him a hero, he must be born one.

    So, in the ancient and medieval world being a hero is a state, not a choice. A man who rushes into a burning building to rescue a child not his own is courageous and praiseworthy, but he is not a hero. A man fated to suffer no harm until his 30th year who does the same is not being courageous, he is at no risk if he’s say 25 at the time, but he is a hero as he is born with a hero’s destiny.

    Nowadays we think of heroism differently, heroism can be achieved, one is not necessarily born to it. And heroism carries a moral dimension. To a modern American in particular, that man who rushes into the burning building is a hero, whereas to a Classical Greek he was not.

    S&S heroes are heroes of the old view, men born to greatness by dint of innate ability or destiny but who may or may not be particularly moral. Heroic fantasy heroes are heroes by dint of their deeds and choices, the world they inhabit is a more egalitarian one in which anyone can become a hero if they are brave enough and honest enough. The S&S world is simply not that fair, and portrays an older world view in which there was no expectation that the universe would be fair to its inhabitants.

  10. As a Leiber fan (of his s&s and non s&s work), this post was a pretty interesting read. I’d say Leiber’s style (or his palette of styles) is a strength rather than a weakness, but that’s a matter of taste, I guess. It’s always good to read someone who has a different perspective on one’s heroes.

    You might actually like some of the published-earlier-chronologically-later stories in Swords Against Death and Swords in the Mist–“Lean Times in Lankhmar” has its fans. Then again, you might not: if you didn’t like “Ill Met in Lankhmar” (or The Big Time), you may just not like Leiber.

    I was puzzled to see some commenters say that there’s a lack of world-building (or a lack of interest in it, or something) in Leiber, though. The world of Nehwon and the multiverse of worlds connected to it–including Earth–are foregrounded pretty strongly in the F&G stories (e.g. “The Bleak Shore”, “The Sunken Land”, The Swords of Lankhmar etc–even in the apparently-I’m-the-only-one-on-the-planet-who-likes-it story “The Snow Women”).

  11. I never had the impression that consistency of world building was important to Lieber to be honest, one story takes place in classical Greece doesn’t it?

    I liked The Snow Women too though if that helps.

  12. There’s the one story that begins in post-Alexander Tyre and heads off for points east (“Adept’s Gambit”). But that’s carefully justified in terms of Leiber’s imaginary multiverse; likewise the German time/space traveller who shows up in Swords of Lankhmar.

    But consistency doesn’t rank high for me among worldbuilding virtues anyway. Is the world interesting? Is it weird? Is it more than just a scenic backdrop, actually playing a role in how the story unfolds? Those are the criteria I rate worldbuilding by.

    Thanks for the validation on “Snow Women”.

  13. Max:

    S&S heroes are heroes of the old view, men born to greatness by dint of innate ability or destiny but who may or may not be particularly moral. Heroic fantasy heroes are heroes by dint of their deeds and choices, the world they inhabit is a more egalitarian one in which anyone can become a hero if they are brave enough and honest enough.

    That’s an interesting distinction. That would certainly make The Broken Sword sword and sorcery; I’m less sure about, for instance, Elric, who has tremendous innate ability but is heroic, to the extent that he is heroic, because he chooses to act. I think The Steel Remains would probably end up in the heroic fantasy bucket under this scheme, as well. But it’s interesting to think about.


    Thanks — I do plan to give some of the earlier Leiber stories a go, if only because I’m an obsessive completist at heart, but it may not be for a while.

    Worldbuilding was something that intrigued me about all the books I’m discussing this week, but for a slightly different reason than has been put forward so far — specifically, that these stories take place in worlds explicitly connected to our own, most often by being placed in some kind of pre-history. I’d had Leiber down as the exception to that, since there’s no indication that Nehwon is connected to our reality in the stories I read, so it’s interesting to hear that he crosses over as well. I do wonder when fully separate secondary worlds became the norm in genre fantasy — I’ve heard Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master books cited as a key turning point, but I don’t know whether or not that’s accurate.

  14. Niall, actually, as opposed to absurd, Sword and Sorcery should have horror elements. Conan, Kull, Kane(s), Imaro, Jirel, Elak, etc. – de Camp didn’t, so forgotten.

    The Snow Women is very garden variety as far as quality goes.

    My favorite Leiber stories
    SO-S-4.5 Leiber, Fritz : Claws From the Night
    SO-S-4.5 Leiber, Fritz : Ill Met In Lankhmar
    SO-S-5.0 Leiber, Fritz : Lean Times In Lankhmar
    SO-S-4.5 Leiber, Fritz : The Sadness of the Executioner
    SO-S-4.5 Leiber, Fritz : Scylla’s Daughter
    SO-S-4.5 Leiber, Fritz : Under the Thumbs Of the Gods

    Lynch is slick? I wouldn’t call 150 (or whatever) page tedious pirate romance digressions slick, certainly not compared to Leiber. Padded/bloated, yes, slick, no.

  15. By slick, I mean that he’s very adept at constructing a narrative that keeps you reading. Farah Mendlesohn’s review of The Lies of Locke Lamora in NYRSF a couple of years ago made a good case for his skill in that regard, I thought.

    I suspect “bloat” is even more subjective than usual when it comes to this subgenre, though. If the canonical short fiction sets your expectations of the form, any modern example at novel length, structured and paced to meet the expectations of modern readers, is going to seem bloated; and if you read novel-length examples first, the short stories may seem thin. All of which said, I certainly agree that Red Seas Under Red Skies is less well-structured than Lies.

    Thanks for the list of stories, I’ll bear them in mind.

  16. Yeah, Lies at least had the really boring bit at the start (and only 60 pages or so).

    Adept at creating a narrative that keeps you reading is pretty much standard for an author, isn’t it? Sort of the whole point. :) That slick willy, I just keep reading, and reading that book…

    If you are going to write something like that, then Steven Brust sets my expectations of the form, I think, and Lynch isn’t in his class, clearly.

    Abercrombie, Chadbourn, Williams – similar Lynch like length, if different types of stories – no long tedious patches. Let alone Feist’s Jimmy the Hand, even. :)

    Or put it this way – if writing a caper story, in whatever media, should there be long flat parts? Should the caper bit have a little prominence? Etc.

    My expectations personally aren’t set by either length, having read both sorts from a very young age – at least what was around then. Only one 800 page fantasy novel around then, that we had, at least, of course.

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