Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fantasy Heroes: Sword and Sorcery

I thought I might run a short series of posts on the nature of fantasy heroes. My comments will necessarily be rather broad and there may be plenty of exceptions to these rules, but this is my general reading on the subject. Feel free to throw in your two cents, or a buck 0 five if you're a mind to. I begin with Sword and Sorcery.

Conan is the archetypal Sword and Sorcery hero, though in many ways the character Kane from Karl Edward Wagner's books is the most original and powerful of these heroes. The traits of the Sword and Sorcery hero are:

1. They are bigger than life. Almost all physical features are described to the extreme. They are faster, stronger, and more dangerous than real life people. This doesn't mean, though, that they are supernatural or have special powers of any kind. They are like a human who has been honed and honed and honed as a weapon.

2. They have an indomitable will to survive. They can stand immense amounts of pain. They will not give up, even though they may on occasion feel fear or dread. Most of them particularly dislike sorcery. Karl Wagner's Kane is an exception to this; he is a sorcerer.

3. They are quick to resort to violence. They are very good at it and have no qualms about using it.

4. They are quick witted but generally not given to philosophical debate and considerations. Karl Wagner's Kane is, again, an exception. Robert E. Howard's Conan is an exception more often than most casual readers think.

5. They like action and can get bored easily, though they are also capable of predator-like patience when the situation demands it. They usually delight in pleasures of the flesh, such as drink and sex.

6. They are usually loners.

7. They are usually wanderers.

8. They are often at least on the edge of being amoral. They may often be, or have been, criminals, but they do have their own ethics and their own sense of loyalty. Almost all of them are immensely loyal to their friends.

9. They usually have some type of goal to accomplish in a story, but oftentimes that goal is very personal. They want wealth, or revenge, or maybe just some excitement. Power for power's sake seldom interests them, though. Once more, Karl Wagner's Kane is an exception.

Note: In addition to Conan and Kane, other Sword and Sorcery heroes include Druss the Slayer by David Gemmell, Thongor by Lin Carter, and Gath of Baal by James Silke. A particularly notable sword and sorcery hero is Imaro, created by Charles Saunders, which is, as far as I know, the only black hero in this genre. Most of these heroes are male, but a notable exception is Raven, who appeared in a fantasy series by Richard Kirk (whose real name is Robert Holdstock).


Lana Gramlich said...

An intriguing post, babykins!

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for this typography of S&S heroes. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

I've got IMARO sitting in a TBR pile. Now you've got me eager to start it.

Sidney said...

I think that's a good assessment.

Travis Cody said...

I'm looking forward to your thoughts on fantasy heroes.

I haven't read a lot of S&S fiction. One of my favorite of these kinds of characters is Karl Cullinane from Joel Rosenburg's Guardians of the Flame series.

Although, he may not be a true S&S hero.

Danette Haworth said...

Excellent breakdown, Charles. (I had more things written, but deleted them--my main familiarity with swords and fantasy is the TV series Highlander.)

Erik Donald France said...

Ah, primal connections with Achilles and Herakles, Beowulf and the Man with No Name. I dig.

RK Sterling said...

Hmm, this Kane fella sounds pretty interesting. I'll have to look him up. :)

Numbers 2 & 3 sound like me at the doctor's office yesterday. lol

Lisa said...

I am so glad you're doing this series of posts. I have always felt pretty sheepish and almost a little guilty that some of my favorite bloggers write in a genre that I have just never "gotten", either in books or movies. I don't know what it is, but contrary to what would seem logical, the more action there is, the less I can focus on it. I have tried. I have really tried, but I find it difficult to read and I have been known to fall asleep in actual movie theaters when there is a lot of fighting and action. What's my problem??

the walking man said...

All right now jumping Jack Flash is a gas...#'s 6,7,8 Thanks ye sir, you have anointed me at least in part fantasy hero.



ivan said...


Well, I certainly had the physique at 20.
Wondered at the time why I was such an asshole.
Conan the Ukrainian?
More like Joe Palooka.
Victor Immature?
More like Wine Stoned Cowboy.
Holy Bible according to Fender.
Band leader
Cracking his spine.
Ah, when we were kids and bulletprof!

SzélsőFa said...

I might be alone with my opinion, but, except for traits 2,6 and 7; almost all of the mentioned features repel me, to almost the extreme.
One starts to wonder what raised these S&S heroes far above the level of acceptance. What made them popular...?

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, you are intriguing my sweet.

Shauna, I will do High fantasy next. Imaro is quite good.

Sidney, thankee.

Travis, I've seen those books but haven't read them so I'm not sure.

Danette, I was a big fan of Highlander, the TV series. Duncan MacLeod is not quite a Sword and sorcery hero though. More high fantasy I would say, although he mixes the genres.

Erik, Definitely a connection to Greek warrior Mythology.

Kate S, where have you been, my dear. You've been missed. I know what you mean about Dr's offices.

Lisa, I've seen other women who have the same reaction. I'm not the one who understands it, though.

Mark, now if you just carried an axe strapped over your back. You'd like Druss the legend by Gemmell. He's a crusty old bastard. Not that he's like you or anything. ;)

Ivan, yeah, I know. And I don't remember when I replaced my armor with mesh.

Szelsofa, they are oftentimes said to appeal to young men, but I know plenty of old men who like them as well. They aren't very popular these days. They were big in the 60s and 70s. I like many of them as characters, although I don't necessarily identify with them. I identify more with Sword and Planet heroes, which I'll talk about later.

writtenwyrdd said...

I haven't heard of *any* of these except Conan, which I read years ago. I like to think of Tarzan as among the S&S heroes even though he's not swining a sword. My libraries were understocked for the genre back when, I guess.

Paul R. McNamee said...

Aside from Kane, Moorcock's Elric has plenty of exceptions - like KEW's Kane he was designed intentionally to break the mold. He does use sorcery and is physically weak, depending on his demonic, soul-sucking sword for strength and sustenance.

For those who haven't heard of many of these, I suggest checking out the wonderful website, Heroes of Dark Fantasy

That's where I first heard of Imaro, I believe.

Just don't read the essays if you want to avoid spoilers - especially about Kane (though, they are good essays!)

Good write up, Charles!

Randy Johnson said...

My favorite fantasy character doesn't actually fit most of the mold. That would be Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone'. He, more so than any other of the Eternal Champion saga, seems to ride alongside Conan, Kane, and Brak The Barbarian(another character I have a fondness for).

Randy Johnson said...

I almost forgot. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are among some of the best fantasies I've read.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

What about they are chick magnets?

I never read Conan! But I can't wait for classes to end so I can actually read!

Charles Gramlich said...

Writtenwyrd, Tarzan is kind of in a unique position. Not really sword and sorcery, but with some of the elements. I'd probably put him closer to the Sword and Planet hero, which I'll be posting about.

Paul R. MacNamee, I checked out your website. Congrats on all the publications. I have probably seen you around over at SF REader Forums perhaps. I'd put Elric with the Sword and sorcery heroes but he definitely has some unique characteristics. I remember reading that Moorcock developed him almost as an anti-Conan. Thanks for stopping by.

Randy, I have a soft spot for Brak as well, and even liked Kyrik and Kothar. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have many unique characteristics as well.

Ello, yep, forgot that one. Good point.

Lana Gramlich said...

Charles; No, you.

Barrie said...

Very interesting. Especially for one who doesn't read too much fantasy these days. Thanks!

Britta Coleman said...

Interesting breakdown...seems many of the characteristics fall in line with the classic anti-hero. Except, perhaps, that over-the-top physique.

WH said...

I think the "loner" attribute is right on the mark.

Sarai said...

This is a very interesting post and I can't wait to see where you go with it? Now I am interested in Kane...
What kind of hero is up next?

Paul R. McNamee said...

"Paul R. McNamee, I checked out your website. Congrats on all the publications."

Thanks! Small stuff but it makes me smile.

"I have probably seen you around over at SF REader Forums perhaps."

Yes, I followed your link over here. The subject jumped out at me, naturally.

Interested in your take on sword'n'planet.

Travis Erwin said...

Great info for a reader like me has never delved into the genre much.

Steve Malley said...

I think the brawny S&S hero had his mature flowering in the 60's and 70's, then went through a sort of Postmodernist Deconstruction period in the 80's and 90's.

You know, where writers pull their childhood heroes apart for fun and profit: Conan-like figures turning out to be bitter alcoholics, or gay-in-denial, etc...

Thankfully, those times are usually followed by Reconstruction, in which audiences once again return to a new and different version of what inspired them in the first place.

For all I know, this might already be going on, but they're putting a different label on the books. Urban fantasy, maybe?

Harry Dresden certainly reminds me of the rough-tough hero, though with a more open and 'modern' emotional life...

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana <-------

Barrie, Fantasy and thrillers make up most of my reading these days but I tend to read a bit of everything.

Britta, There's definitely a serious anti-hero edge to 'em. I don't mind a little bit of that but I don't like complete amorality in characters as a general rule.

Billy, I do like the "loner" aspect. A lot of Louis L'Amour's heroes had that quality as well.

Sarai, I'm going to do High fantasy next. Kane is definitely an interesting character.

Paul, I will do the Sword n planet hero third. That's actually one of my favorites, of course.

Travis Erwin, I should do western heroes too. But what about thriller and mystery heroes? I don't know nearly as much about them.

Steve Malley, I think the first thing that happened is that folks began to parody the Conan type hero and that kind of brought them down for a while. But elements of that type of hero have crept into many other genres too, I think.

Heff said...

A nice possible title for you to use :

The Wrath Of Transplante De Cabelo !

Shauna Roberts said...

Like Lisa, a lot of action turns me off. If two people are fighting, and one is a character I know (Beowulf vs. Grendel's mother, the Highlander vs. another immortal, d'Artagnon vs. one of Richelieu's guards), I can really get into that. But random mayhem, on or off the battlefield, does nothing for me. I need a personal investment in the action. Car chases that my husband thinks are really cool I usually find boring or anxiety producing (my mind focuses on those poor people in the cars that explode or are forced off the bridge and their poor families).

There's a thin line between this type of hero and a villain. Most people compromise their ethics all the time for various reasons. The S&S protagonist's strong sense of ethics puts him out of the mainstream, either for good or for evil, depending on what those ethics are. The villain in one of my WIPs fits your description of the S&S hero pretty closely; with a few tweaks to his ethics, my villain could be a strong hero.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, no, that's too horrible to contemplate.

Shauna, great point that a few tweaks either way could turn a Sword and sorcery hero into a villain, or vice versa. The character Kane really is pretty much a villain.

Greg said...

Charles, great post! I can't disagree with any of those traits.

Travis -- is the Guardians of the Flame series the one where it's a bunch of kids playing D&D and they end up entering the world they're playing in? I read that series... it was surprisingly good.

Bernita said...

Tarl Cabot of the Gor series?

Think that these heros are first and foremost warriors.
Their loner/restless aspect relates them to the eternal wanderer archetype too.

writtenwyrdd said...

Tarl Cabot and the Gor series? Oh, man, I'd forgotten about them. However, they are sort of now the illicit smut fetishist's fantasy of choice now. Rather sexist. But if you want to know what I mean, do a google or two for fan fiction...

I made the mistake of mentioning I'd read the series as a kid. The coworker I mentioned it so got all Oh reeealy on me and proceeded to tell me his wife wouldn't let them in the house, nor let him read the books or the web sites. I had to look on teh web sites to see what was so objectionable to her.

This is proof that many adult overtones go over the adolescent reader's head.

Bernita said...

I had the impression the fetish thing developed after the first couple of books, and that the first one, at least, was pure sword and sorcery.

Charles Gramlich said...

Greg, thanks. I haven't read that "Guardian of the flame" series myself.

Bernita, writtenwyrd, I read a fair number of the Gor books when I was young. The first four had very little of the fetish stuff in them and were really good fantasies, I thought. After that he was hit or miss through the next 6 books but after that they become unreadable because of all the dull fetish sections that were just repetive.