Category Archives: sword & sorcery

Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition

This is very cool – the 1998 classic computer RPG Baldur’s Gate is getting remade as an Enhanced Edition to work on modern hardware (and there’s even going to be iOS and Android edition). It will also include a great deal of new content, in the forms of quests and new characters, and have the capability to expand the game further with new DLC modules.

I’m looking forward to it. Not that I have time for computer games these days, but I think I’ll give it a spin.

-JM

Robert E. Howard Was Racist, And So We Must Consign Him To The Dustbin Of History!

Jason Sanford writes that as Robert E. Howard was undeniably racist, his work is not worth preserving.

“This cultural “passing on” is where Howard’s writings embrace true failure. Despite what Howard’s defenders may wish, we do not read his stories as if we were back in the 1930s. We read them through the eyes of our 21st century beliefs. Not only was his racism disturbing to some of his contemporaries, it is equally disturbing to modern readers. Because of this, many people don’t believe Howard’s stories are worth passing on to others.”

This is cultural change in action. As a father with a biracial family, I will not recommend Howard’s stories to my sons. As a critic and reader, I will not recommend his stories to anyone else. When enough people do this, an author’s work moves out of the cultural mainstream.

Al Harron disagrees (Mr. Harron, you might recall, visited our humble blog before, back when I decided to find out once and for all just how often Conan of Cimmeria got the girl in the end):

So you’re basically saying that Howard’s racism excludes his fiction from consideration in the ranks of great literature?  By that logic you’d have to lose Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Ian Fleming, H.P. Lovecraft, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, and many others.  I certainly don’t think that should happen at all.

I agree with Mr. Harron on this point.

Robert E. Howard was undeniably racist. Yet, as I’ve argued before, the censorious, Pharisaical urge to purge literature that does not conform to 21st century American political piety is not a good thing. We are not, after all, the apex of history, and the entirety of history has not been an progressive evolution leading to Glorious Us, the wisest and most enlightened of all generations, fit to judge all those who came before.

Just as we look back and condemn 19th century America (and its literature) for slavery and racism and robber barons, so to will future generations one day look back and condemn 21st century America (and its literature) for its libertine obsession with sex, its craven adherence to politically correct speech, its addiction to materialistic pleasure-seeking, its contempt for the elderly and sick and unborn. Previous generations were human, and flawed – as we are.

Besides, previous generations of writers often wrote with a power and vigor that we modern writers cannot match. To censor them would be to deny ourselves their insight into the tragedy of the human condition.

-JM

Artists

I’m pleased to report that my short story “Artists” will be appearing in Rogue Blades’ Assassins: A Clash Of Steel anthology.

I’m especially pleased because the protagonist is Morgant the Razor, who I first thought up while in college, lo, these many years ago. This little excerpt from “Artists” will tell you all that you need to know about Morgant:

“You’re Morgant the Razor!  The paramount assassin of Istarinmul.  They tell stories about you, old man.  They say you’ve killed lords, emirs, high priests, great merchants, and mighty sorcerers.  You even killed the Emperor of Nighmar, and all his Imperial Guard and all his Legions could not save him.”

“Hardly,” said Morgant.  “The Emperor killed himself.  The old fool was drunk when I broke into his chamber.  I merely told him that his enemies had come to kill him, and he fled out the window to escape.  Of course, in his haste he forgot that the window was two hundred feet above the ground.”

-JM

Elric Of Melniboné Attempts To Open A Can Of Soup, Part II

Via marycatelli, here is an excellent essay on one of Michael Moorcock’s essays by superversive/Tom Simon, criticizing Moorcook’s rather ill-founded criticism of J.R.R. Tolkien. Which is an another topic, of course, but this paragraph nicely sums up Elric’s biggest problem:

Elric makes a pact with Arioch, a Lord of Chaos, who gives him the sword Stormbringer. Stormbringer gives its wielder great power, but also turns him, in effect, into a vampire, who must slay other living souls merely to stay alive. Nowhere in the Elric books is there any indication that Moorcock’s hero regrets his pact, or feels that his victims have any worth comparable to his own. In the end he builds up an army of barbarians, returns to Melniboné, kills the cousin who usurped his throne, destroys the entire city, and then betrays his allies to destruction themselves. From all this slaughter and betrayal he walks away more or less smiling, if the desperately melancholy Elric can ever be said to smile. It is a celebration of heroic nihilism so blatant that even Nietzsche might have averted his eyes in shame. All this is worlds away from the strict Judaeo-Christian ethics and Catholic sense of grace that permeate Tolkien’s work.

Elric is dependent on Stormbringer to keep him from becoming a cripple, and he often laments this fact…but this is also Elric’s own fault, as well. I wonder if anyone ever pointed out this obvious fact to him…

#

ELRIC: Curse this vile demon-sword Stormbringer! It destroys everything I hold dear, yet without it, I am helpless and feeble! How I wish I could be rid of it.

JM: Actually, wouldn’t regular treatments of medication allow you to function without the sword?

ELRIC: Er…yes.

JM: Why not do that?

ELRIC: Because the necessary drugs are only available in Imrryr, the Dreaming City, of which I was once Emperor.

JM: Didn’t you betray your kinsmen and sack the city?”

ELRIC: Er…yes.

JM: So, you are dependent upon your cursed sword because you destroyed the only source for the medication that would allow you to remain independent of the sword?

(long pause)

ELRIC: Er…

JM: Yup.

ELRIC: I am cursed! Cursed! The forces of Chaos manipulate my actions, and I cannot resist.

JM: Somehow I think that convincing you to do stupid things didn’t take much exertion on the part of the forces of Chaos. If you get my drift.

ELRIC: I am doomed, and bring misery and despair wherever I trod.

JM: Also, the whole emo thing? Terribly adolescent. Makes it easy to mock you, though.

ELRIC: You dare mock me, Elric, last emperor of Melniboné, bearer of the runesword Stormbringer, master of ten thousand years of sorcerous lore?

JM: Oh, yeah. Also, you’re not really Elric; you’re just a simulacrum of him on the blog of an obscure fantasy writer. Which means I can make you do whatever I want. And since you spend at least a third of each story whining about your fate, you might as well express yourself through song…

ELRIC: No! No! Not that! Stop!

(ELRIC bursts into SONG & DANCE.)

ELRIC: It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to…

JM: And you thought Arioch was cruel.

-JM

Elric Of Melniboné Attempts To Open A Can Of Soup

Lately I’ve been reading Michael Moorcock’s “Elric” stories, and I’ve noticed two things about Elric as a character:

-He whines a lot. And I mean a lot.

-Everything he whines about is his own fault.

For instance, Elric defeats his traitorous cousin Yyrkoon and rescues Cymoril, the love of his life, from the traitor’s clutches…only to hand the throne over to Yyrkoon, leaving Cymoril in Yyrkoon’s power. How could have possibly have ended well? (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.) This seems to be Elric’s modus operandi: do something stupid, and act surprised when it blows up in his face.

Like, if Elric tried to open a can of soup, something like this would happen…

#

ELRIC: I am cursed, and the most miserable of men! If only I could be free from the manipulations of the lords of Chaos.

(ELRIC attempts to open a can of soup, and fails.)

ELRIC: Agh! I am in dire peril! Lords of Chaos, aid me!

(Nothing happens.)

ELRIC: My lord Arioch! Aid me! Blood and souls for you, if you but lend me your power!

(ELRIC blacks out. When he awakens, the can of soup has been ripped open by the talon of some hideous otherworldly beast.)

ELRIC: Victory! The soup is mine!

(He reaches for the can, but accidentally spills it all over the ground.)

ELRIC: No! Everything I do is cursed, and all I touch turns to death and ashes! Why can I not escape from the powers of the lords of Chaos, upon whom I call whenever the slightest thing goes wrong?

(ELRIC’s shoelace breaks.)

ELRIC: I cannot continue unaided in the face of these travails! Lords of Chaos, aid me!

-JM

Bad mages, bad mages, what you gonna do…

…what you gonna do when they hex for you!

Okay! Now that we’ve gotten the obligatory bad punning out of the way, to the main point.

Apropos to yesterday’s discussion about the morality, or lack thereof, of magic users in sword & sorcery, I had a thought about the nature of magic in many works of fantasy fiction. Specifically:

The magic in very many works of fantasy fiction isn’t magic at all, but mechanistic physics, and not supernatural, but natural.

As a general rule of thumb, “magic” means using supernatural forces or entities to achieve a desired end in the natural world. In other words, it means appealing to forces outside of nature. And in a lot of fantasy literature, magic is portrayed as simply an extension of the natural world, a level of physics that some people have the talent or the ability to manipulate. Like, Harry Dresden goes on about how magic comes from life and emotions and the heart – all natural processes. Harry Potter’s magic, of course, is wholly mechanical. Very often magic-using protagonists are born with their abilities, and must learn to use them in the face of persecution or fear.

In other words, this magic is wholly natural – there is no hint of the supernatural, the unnatural, the uncanny, or the occult about it. It’s merely a force to be manipulated, like electricity or magnetism.

By contrast, there is a very different sort of tone in a work if the magic is less natural and more supernatural – if it is gained by trafficking with forces and powers and entities outside the circles of the natural world. Because there’s an excellent chance those entities won’t be at all friendly, and may demand a price for the gifts of knowledge and power. This sort of magic is altogether uncanny and unnatural; while the previous sort of mechanistic magic follows the laws of the natural world, this kind of magic violates those laws, even blasphemes them. Think of Tsotha-lanti or Xaltotun of Acheron in Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories – Tsotha-lanti, who communes with the dark things in the well below the Scarlet Citadel, and Xaltotun of Acheron, who sacrifices virgins to the serpent god Set.  A more modern example would be the character of the villainous Dr. Facilier in the Disney movie “The Princess and the Frog”, who obtains his supernatural powers from his “friends on the other side”. Of course, in the end Dr. Facilier’s “friends” (obvious spoiler alert) prove rather less friendly than he thought.

How would this reflect in the morality of magic-using characters? If the story’s magic is mechanistic, simply a natural force, then a magic user is no more likely to be evil than your average electrician. However, if the story’s magic is of the second type, genuinely supernatural and uncanny, the the magic user will almost invariably be evil.

And magic users of the second type, I think, are one of the defining qualities of sword & sorcery. Magic users of the first type are more likely to be found in high fantasy, heroic fantasy, or urban fantasy.

Though I do think that a story about a conflict between the two types of magic systems might be interesting to write.

-JM

the definition of sword & sorcery

SFSignal did one of their “what is the definition of this genre” articles, with various writers weighing on the definition of sword & sorcery. My favorite was Glen Cook’s:

I see Sword & Sorcery as a species of proletarian fiction. The heroes are working class guys, within the context of the story and mores of the time when it was written. They are guys who get stuff done but you would not want them in the drawing room for high tea because they smell bad, break things, and leave bloody messes all over. Despite their class, or lack thereof, they are not much into progressive politics, seeing that sort as easy meat.

He’s got a point. It’s often amusing when you see a sword & sorcery character with the attitudes of an American progressive in good standing, mostly because of the sheer anachronism of it. That, and I have a theory that progressive politics are a luxury afforded by advanced technology; take away the technology, and the progressive worldview becomes unsustainable. To site an example from a sword & sorcery story, no doubt the inhabitants of Xuchotl in Robert E. Howard’s “Red Nails” were once very progressive.

But that’s an aside. Back to the main point. I think the key to understanding sword & sorcery is to remember that it’s sword & SORCERY, not “sword & the enchanting magic of wonder”. The genre could be renamed“sword & supernatural abilities employed to wicked ends”. The antiheroes of sword & sorcery make for effective protagonists because they often face sorcerers who are even worse than they are.

Magic, in sword & sorcery, is almost always a malign force, and at best manages sort of a dark neutrality. In high fantasy, or heroic fantasy, you can have heroic magic users, like the archmage Ged or the protagonists of Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” books or the vast corpus of game tie-in fiction. Or you can have magic users acting as a representative of a benevolent higher power, like Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings”.

Not so in sword & sorcery. There aren’t any Gandalfs, Dumbledores, Geds, or Allanons running around in a sword & sorcery. Instead, you have Xaltotun of Acheron, Iucounu the Laughing Magician, the Limper, and scores of other wicked and cruel magicians. A barbarian hero can only kill you with a sword, but a sorcerer can do far, far worse – and will usually enjoy doing it, too.

And I think this makes sword & sorcery more realistic, in a psychological sense. Often people who attain political or financial power abuse it, sometimes horribly. Why would someone with supernatural power act any differently?

-JM