Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Solomon Kane: Sword & Sorcery or Historical Fantasy?

A while back I was talking about the debate over what Robert E. Howard story should be considered the first sword & sorcery story. The contenders are Red Shadows featuring Solomon Kane and The Shadow Kingdom featuring King Kull. The Kane story was the first to see print, so my initial response was Red Shadows wins the title. BUT recently I was discussing this with some other REH fans and the question came up, are the Solomon Kane tales really sword & sorcery?
Now before you start screaming sacrilege, stop and think about it. That's what I had to do. We tend to lump authors and genres together. Most folks think of REH as a sword & sorcery author, so therefore anything he writes has to be sword & sorcery, right? Well no. Obviously those of us who've been reading his stuff for years know he wrote westerns and boxing stories and detective stories and lots of historical fiction. The S&S stuff is just his most popular and well known work. Blame Conan.
Now Solomon Kane, of course, used a sword and often fought sorcery, so once again it seems like an automatic jump to S&S, but to use another genre of fiction as an example, that's kind of like saying that every story with cops and guns and murder is a mystery. If you read a lot of crime and suspense fiction then you know that isn't the case. Quite a bit of what we consider Epic Fantasy (Tolkien clones) also contains swords and sorcery, but most S&S fans don't consider that stuff sword and sorcery. To further the crime fiction analogy, S&S occupies much the same place in fantasy that Hardboiled Private Eye books hold in the mystery field. Robert E. Howard is to J.R.R Tolkien as Raymond Chandler is to Agatha Christie. Of course, as I and others have pointed out, S&S is kind of hard to define anyway.
I think one of the stabs at defining it is what started the whole debate in fact. The folks who vote for Kull in The Shadow Kingdom as the first S&S story usually say that sword & sorcery has to take place in an imaginary world or in pre-history. Something like Kull's Atlantis, Conan's Hyborian Age, Leiber's Newhon, or Moorcock's Young Kingdoms. For them, Kane's Elizabethan age adventures wouldn't be S&S, but rather Historical Fantasy, like much of Harry Turtledove's work or Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. I can see the logic there. If someone wrote a series today about an Elizabethan era adventurer fighting supernatural menaces it would probably get classified as Historical Fantasy.
Of course there's also the school of thought that says, "It's all fantasy. Why are we quibbling about it?" These people obviously don't understand the fanboy mentality. We LIKE quibbling about it. Anyway, not sure which side of the fence I fall on yet, but it's an interesting question.


Taranaich said...

Just to throw another spanner in the works, a lot of people consider Dunsany's "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth" to be the first S&S yarn, though I agree with Leo Grin that it's more "proto-S&S" than actual S&S proper.

As for whether Kane is Sword-and-Sorcery or Historical Fantasy, what makes Kane not Sword-and-Sorcery? All Kane's stories could easily be set in another time, or another planet, without losing much in the way of the plot: only one or two details would have to change.

Historical Fantasy, as I understand it, is more intrinsically tied to its time and place, and what's more, it changes things to the extent that it becomes an alternate universe. The Mabinogion, The Difference Engine, Romance of the Three Kingdoms et al have magic or otherwise fundamentally alter the world in highly public ways. In contrast, the Kane stories could have taken place, because they don't do something like make Abe Lincoln a vampire, or have dragons fighting the Spanish Armada.

Very few of the Kane tales take place in an established historical event or milieu, at least not beyond "Elizabethan Times". The only ones I can think of would be "The One Black Stain" and possibly "The Return of Richard Grenville."

In any case, I choose a third option: Historical Sword-and-Sorcery. There, that should do it. After all, the only thing better than arguing about subgenres is making sub-subgenres!

Charles R. Rutledge said...

"Historical Sword & Sorcery." I like that a lot. Differentiates from the Conan-ish stuff. Fond as I am of Lord Dunsany, I see Fortress as being closer to a fairy tale than a sword & sorcery yarn. But hey, that's just my take.

Taranaich said...

"Fortress", I think, is of a liminal genre, somewhere between the two.

"Historical Sword-and-Sorcery" works for other Howard stories too: Bran Mak Morn, Black Turlogh, "The House of Arabu," even "The Blood of Belshazzar." Kull, Conan, the James Allisons and other antediluvian tales are more staunchly Sword-and-Sorcery, while ones set in a time period can be called the latter.