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.