Saturday, November 04, 2006

Whence Sword & Sorcery

In his introduction to Kull: Exile of Atlantis, Steve Tomkins says “It is not quite accurate to label the Shadow Kingdom, which introduced Weird Tales readers to King Kull in the August1929 issue, the original Sword & Sorcery story. To do so is to overlook and earlier masterpiece, Lord Dunsany's 1910 The Fortress Unvaquishable, Save for Sacnoth, in which a swordsman invades the hellish, dragon- guarded stronghold of an archmage.”
I'm going to have to disagree with that. I've read Fortress. In fact I re-read it last night, and it, like the rest of Lord Dunsany's work, is fantasy, bordering on fairy tale. It is not sword & sorcery, no more than the Lord of the Rings, or for that matter, the Wizard of Oz. As odd as it sounds, a story can contain both swords and sorcerers and not be sword & sorcery, just as a story can contain murder and the police and not be a mystery.
Sword & Sorcery, that bastard spawn of horror and historical fiction, tempered with a layer of hard boiled realism, was created by Robert E. Howard. Period. You can point to many examples of proto-Sword & Sorcery from Beowulf to the adjective drenched prose of Clark Ashton Smith, but the sub-genre of S&S was born when REH mixed the historical fiction he loved with the fantastic, dark visions of Weird Tales writers like H.P. Lovecraft. From here came Kull, Conan, Solomon Kane, and all of Howard's other S&S heroes.
Of S&S many people say that, like pornography, they can't define it but they know it when they see it. My personal take is that there is a very limited range of true S&S. The genre was created by Robert E. Howard and expanded upon by a small group of writers. The other pioneers of S&S were Fritz Lieber, who added dark humor and came up with a duo of heroes, C.L. Moore, who created the first female S&S hero, and Michael Moorcock, who flipped the genre by making his protagonist a physical weakling as opposed to a brawny barbarian. Everything else in the genre since is pretty much derived from these writers with the possible exception of Karl Edward Wagner's Kane, who may look like Conan, but who is actually an extremely intelligent and cultured man. (Not to mention he's the biblical Cain. A nice touch.)
The farther one gets from the Howard model, which despite its fantastic trappings, is usually firmly grounded in realism, the more one moves into High Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy. That's elf land where Raymond Fiest, Terry Brooks, Robert Jordon and all the Hobbitoids live. It ain't S&S.
Anyway, I'm not sure what Mr. Tomkins agenda is in trying to attribute the creation of Sword & Sorcery to Lord Dunsany, but he probably should read the book cover blurb on Kull which reads, “Heroic tales of adventure from the FATHER of sword and sorcery.” Damn straight.

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