So, Why Do I Write Sword and Sorcery?

I have a PhD in 18th-century English literature. Most people don’t care (hell, most of the time, I don’t care), but those who do invariably ask me why I write fantasy novels. The implication, as you might guess, is that I should be writing something more important, or more literary, or more “real”. I used to fob these people off with some answer designed to appease them (and change the subject). Now I’m more likely to tell them the real reason:

Genre fiction in general, and fantasy literature in particular, is the only contemporary literature in which characters can act honourably, without irony. Maybe they aren’t nice people, maybe they aren’t even good people – they’re certainly loaded down with flaws just like the rest of us. But they are honourable people. Even if they don’t think so themselves.

Of course, I became aware of this over the course of time, both that it was true of fantasy literature, and that the concept, as a concept, was important to me. But my first inkling of it came in my early teens when my brother gave me Warlocks and Warriors for my birthday. It’s subtitled “An anthology of heroic fantasy” and was edited and introduced by L. Sprague de Camp. (BTW, my memory is that my brother stole this book from the library, he maintains he did no such thing; I maintain my version makes a better story) . There were three stories from this anthology that in particular intrigued, and even frightened me, hanging in the back of my mind to this day: “Black God’s Kiss”, by C.L. Moore, “The Bells of Shoredan”, by Roger Zelazny, and above all, “Thieves House”, by Fritz Leiber.

From these stories I learned that heroes didn’t have to be royal; that the endings were sometimes ambiguous, when it came to that happiness stuff. And in particular I learned these three things: That when your friends are in trouble you go back for them; that you hold by your code no matter what, even if that code causes you a lot of trouble. Oh yeah, and payback is a bitch.

These three stories also gave me my models for sword and sorcery heroes, Jirel of Joiry (a woman!), Dilvish the Damned (someone no longer exactly human), and, most significantly, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (comrades, partners).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sword and sorcery stories, as written by Leiber, Moore, Kuttner, de Camp, et al, were appearing in print at pretty much the same time as stories by people like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In both we have protagonists (certainly not heroes in the classical sense) who inhabit places dangerous and dark, and who yet know how things operate, how to get by – and how to behave. The society around them is corrupt and cynical – hell, they might be a bit corrupt and a bit cynical themselves. So, they’re not heroes, but they are heroic, by the standards of their own worlds.

Although it might be hard to imagine, the worlds inhabited by today’s sword and sorcery protagonists tend to be even more dark, and still more dangerous, than the worlds of my three classic favourites. But luckily for me – and for the stories I want to tell – the protagonists are still my kind of guys. Like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, they’re honourable people.

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14 thoughts on “So, Why Do I Write Sword and Sorcery?

  1. Absolutely brilliant post! Thank you for this notion, something that’s been at the back of my conscious awareness. This is what draws me to write epic fantasy and sword and sorcery — characters who value honor and sincerity and have the guts to push cynicism aside in favor of doing the right thing. Awesome!

    1. vmalan

      Thanks Vera. It’s been said that cynics are disillusioned idealists, and there’s probably something to that. I don’t think of myself as an idealist, but more of a savvy realist.

  2. Great post! I think my own go-to answer as to why I write fantasy books is “Because I love them.” But, as you pointed out, it actually goes a lot deeper. I suppose my first S&S hero was Conan the Cimmerian, thanks to two things: 1) The Frazetta-covered paperbacks (from Ace?) that collected Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales along new ones from Lin Carter and company, and 2) The Conan comics and magazines from Marvel–which led me right to the source, which was REH. Yet on the opposite end of the spectrum was reading THE HOBBIT in 3rd grade. Which, of course, led me to LORD OF THE RINGS and Aragorn, who is a very different kind of hero than Conan. My own tastes land somewhere in the middle of these two. Perhaps this is why I’m the one who usually argues that there isn’t much difference between Epic Fantasy and Sword-n-Sorcery. Finally, I remember when I discovered Moorcock’s ELRIC series, and it completely blew down the boundaries between the two sub-genres. An epic fantasy with a doomed and (often dishonorable) hero who destroyed basically everyone who loved him, yet strove to resist the greater evils of his world, even as he heralded in the End of All Things with his great, black soul-drinking blade. Mix all of that with Clark Ashton Smith’s dark-as-sin Zothique tales–and his slightly-less-dark Hyperborean stories–as well as Lord Dunsany’s “Dreamer’s Tales” and Lovecraft’s tales of the Dreamlands, and you’ve just about nailed my formative influences–both as a reader AND a writer. Later I discovered Tanith Lee’s FLAT EARTH and Fritz Lieber’s FAFHRD & MOUSER tales, which also had an immense impact. Who was it that said we are all the sum of our influences?

    1. vmalan

      We are definitely on the same page, John. I can cite all of the books you’ve mentioned as ones sitting on my shelves even as we speak. I’m particularly interested in what you say about Elric. I would agree that he’s frequently dishonorable, but at the same time, as you suggest, he’s resisting a greater evil, which still puts him on the “right” side. That he (and others) occasionally fail doesn’t disqualify them as heroes in my way of thinking. In one of his comments Paul Weimer suggests that there is a difference in scope between S&S and epic fantasy. It would be fun to thrash that one out one day.

  3. Reblogged this on graemedavis and commented:
    This is a great post. It articulates perfectly a lot of things that I’ve kind of known without exactly being able to get a handle on them. I hadn’t heard of Violette before now, but this definitely makes me want to read her books.

  4. Thanks to Howard for the link to this post. I can tell from the writers and characters you list that you are a woman of impeccable taste. Noir and S&S are two of my three favorite genres (the other being space opera), and you named many of my favorites.

    Heroes are people who do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, no matter the cost. Heroes are not pure and unsullied. Rather, they are often the opposite, but they rise above their faults. You’re correct in that there aren’t many contemporary genres where you can write about honor and heroism without irony outside of S&S. I think that may be why S&S is enjoying something of a resurgence.

    1. vmalan

      Thanks Keith. I’m thinking that nowadays there’s actually less noir around in crime writing than there is in fantasy. On the other hand, there’s Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels (at least the early ones) and Robert Crais’ books. S&S is still my first love, however.

      1. I deliberately slam noir and S&S together in my fantasy books, and Spenser is a *huge* influence; my youngest son’s middle name is Spenser, with the second “s.” Spenser is honorable, but he often has to try to do the “most right” thing in bad situations. That’s something that gives him realism and depth, and it works the same with characters in any genre.

        Recently, in discussing the Capmbell “Hero’s Journey” trope, I realized that in such a story, my protagonist would be relegated to the “mentor who dies” position, based on the fact that he’s a) older, b) has an iffy moral record, and c) probably *would* try to help some dumb farmboy on a quest. I think that by moving this sort of character from a supporting role into the protagonist’s position, S&S gives itself a lot more depth than straight-ahead classic fantasy.

        1. vmalan

          I hadn’t thought of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, but I think most of my characters would be relegated to the same role. They make far more interesting protagonists, don’t they.

  5. I think you touched on something significant that a lot of people miss — the connection between the early sword-and-sorcery writers and the whole noir movement. And I loved these bits: “That when your friends are in trouble you go back for them; that you hold by your code no matter what, even if that code causes you a lot of trouble. Oh yeah, and payback is a bitch.”
    That’s a lot of what I took away from those stories when I first read them. Makes me wonder if there’s an “all I needed to know I learned from sword-and-sorcery” bullet point t-shirt out there somewhere…

  6. vmalan

    I’m not sure that there is something more widescreen in scale than S&S; or, rather, perhaps what I mean is the S&S can be as widescreen as you’d like it to be. I prefer to write about honourable characters, and at the moment that limits me, as I suggest above, to writing in genre. Perhaps because of the profound effect S&S in particular had on me as a young person, that’s the specific sub-genre that resonates for me. I don’t consider it narrow in scale. On the contrary.

      1. vmalan

        Ah, now I see what you meant by more widescreen in scale; I probably should have asked you to clarify. I don’t think any writer is ever actually going to admit that they don’t focus on character, but yes, the kind of focus I’m using I think does put me more in the S&S than the epic camp.

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