Monday, May 24, 2010

Fantasy by Definition: Part 1



The stories in Bitter Steel fall into a genre that I call Heroic Fantasy. But what does that mean? Well, I thought for my next few posts I’d tell you how I define Heroic Fantasy and give lots of examples. Discussion and disagreement are welcome. Half the fun of defining genres is arguing over the boundaries.

To me, Heroic Fantasy is a type of fiction in which a heroic (usually bigger than life) figure uses a combination of physical strength and edged weapons (Swords, Axes, Spears) to face bigger than life foes. The hero may be either male or female, but the focus is primarily on personal conflict between the hero and villain. Frank Frazetta's painting of his "Death Dealer" character, which I've borrowed here, illustrates the "feel" of this kind of fiction very well. I divide Heroic Fantasy into four categories: Sword and Sorcery, Sword and Planet, High Fantasy, and Heroic Historical. (I’m not quite sure how “Urban Fantasy” fits into this scheme but I’ll have some thoughts along the way.)

The first of these categories is Sword and Sorcery (S and S), and that’s my theme for this post. Most of the stories in Bitter Steel fall into this sub-genre, but not all. The emphasis in S and S is on up close and personal conflict between the hero and supernatural forces such as gods, demons, or sorcerers, although a story might occasionally deal with a monster or some survivor of an elder race. Most of these stories could not exist if the supernatural elements were removed. In Bitter Steel, the stories called “The Evening Rider” and “In the Memory of Ruins,” which were the first two Thal Kyrin stories I wrote, fit this mold to a “T.” In some of my later S and S stories I tried to play down the supernatural element in favor of human against human conflict.

The hero in Sword and Sorcery is usually of the "barbaric" type, although he or she may also, very rarely, possess sorcerous powers. If sorcerous powers exist in the hero, they are never prominently featured. Generally, the hero also has some anti-hero characteristics. He or she is not a villain per se, but they often do engage in some shady activities. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is the prototype here. He’s been a thief, a pirate, and a mercenary, but he also has a code of justice that leads him most often to take a hand on the side of good as opposed to evil. Most of the heroes in Bitter Steel don’t quite fit here. They certainly have plenty of barbaric qualities, but most did not originally come from barbaric environments like Conan. Thal Kyrin was a prince before events drove him from his home. Jedess is a queen when her story begins. The heroes in Bitter Steel also have relatively few anti-hero qualities, although Thal has been a mercenary.

The setting for S and S is most often a recognizable version of Earth, either in the distant past or the far future. The Thal Kyrin stories in Bitter Steel take place on a world called “Thanos,” which is Earth in the future after an alien race conquered the planet, knocked human civilization back to the stone age, and then left humanity to claw its way up the ladder again.

I consider Robert E. Howard to be the founder of Sword and Sorcery, although elements of the genre can certainly be found in earlier works. Howard was the first person to put the whole package together, though. His Kull stories were the first, followed by his Conan tales. The Kane stories of Karl Edward Wagner, the Druss the Legend works of David Gemmell, the Brak tales of John Jakes, the Death Dealer books of James Silke, and the Kyrik and Kothar books of Gardner F. Fox all fit into this mold. I also include here the Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, and Castle Brass series’ of stories by Michael Moorcock, though they stretch the definition a little. Female variations include the Raven series by Richard Kirk (a pseudonym for more than one author), and the Red Sonja series by David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney. Charles Saunders wrote a notable series featuring a black S and S hero named Imaro.

I want to mention two prominent fantasy writers who are often shoehorned into the S and S field but who I think are not a perfect match. The first is C. L. Moore with her Jirel of Joiry stories. Moore was a contemporary of Howard’s and her tales of the female hero Jirel have a haunting and lyrical power while being no less brutal than Howard’s own work. But the first Jirel stories take place in a fantasy version of medieval France and are thus not quite true to the standard S and S format. Later Jirel stories move more firmly in that direction. The second writer is another of Howard’s contemporaries, Fritz Leiber, who created the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales. The blond Fafhrd is very much a Conan type hero, but the Gray Mouser is completely different from any examples I mentioned above. And, Sword and Sorcery almost always features a “lone” hero. I actually think that Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories may be one of the roots for modern Urban Fantasy.

Sword and Sorcery is not nearly as popular today as it was in the 1960s and 1970s, and I’d like to change that, although I have no delusions that Bitter Steel will turn the tide. Still, it’s a genre I love to read and I sure wish there were more good books in the field being written today. To end with, here’s a passage from Bitter Steel that I hope captures the flavor of what I’ve been talking about. It comes from a story called “Coin and Steel.”

“‘They’ll call this place, Bloody Ground,’" Thal Kyrin said, and his horsemen nodded and seated their lances for the charge. In another moment the battle-horns sounded and the men moved forward in answer, hawk pennons snapping silver and black, dirt rising under the hooves of their war-horses. Thal Kyrin led them from a walk, to a trot, to a gallop, and they were five hundred Iron Riders when they struck the enemy lines, bowed them in, and rolled them back. And like a tide behind, the Dayne phalanxes came. The left wing of the Evranoire army ceased to be.”
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29 comments:

David J. West said...

Great post on my favorite genre's. I love your sample-gotta get a copy soon.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I hope you can change the tides! We're also due for some new S&S movies, too.

Scott Parker said...

Really enjoyed this post. As one who knows S&S only from the peripheral, I enjoyed the history lesson. Thanks. I have Swords and Deviltry at home and the first Conan stories. I'll need to crack them soon. Looking forward to additional posts in this series.

laughingwolf said...

a good analysis... i really enjoyed the leiber tales

your passage makes me wanna know more!

ever hear of 'var, the stick'? grand post-apocalyptic tales, i forget the author, but stories were captivating...

laughingwolf said...

piers anthony did the var series....

jodi said...

Charles, does Lana do the art work for your books? Oh, and congrats on the recent publication! U rock!

Scott said...

Charles,

Congrats on the book getting out!

I pretty much agree with everything you said here about Heroic Fantasy. Good observations.

Travis Cody said...

I'm looking forward to more of this discussion, particularly when you get to High Fantasy as that is where I feel most comfortable as a reader and as a writer. I'm curious as to how you define it.

I never got into the S&S category...no idea why. But I'm accumulating a list based on recommendations from you and some of the folks who comment here so I can remedy the missing pieces in my library. I suspect a Kindle will come in handy when I'm ready to start exploring.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J. West, I just love that kind of intense and emotional writing.

Alex, I know there's a new Conan coming out, and a Solomon Kane, I've heard. Plus another Keven Sorbo movie. I hope some of them are good.

Scott Parker, do you have the Ace conans or the Berkley ones? Or the newest releases. The Ace Conan's had a lot of pastiche stuff mixed in with Howard's originals. The berkley or the new Del Rey's have the best stuff.

Laughingwolf, I have a book called "Battle Circle" by Piers Anthony, which includes Sos the Rope, Var the Stick, and Neq the Sword. They were a trilogy and a very good one. I really like that book and consider it some of ANthony's best writing.

Jodi, Lana did the cover for my poetry chapbook, but not for the novels. I'm going to try and get some of her illustrations used for the next Talera book.

Scott, more to come. SOme of this appeared in REHupa ages ago but my thinking has changed a bit. Hopefully matured a bit.

Travis Cody, my best recommendations for S&S would be for Howard's Conan stuff, especially Red Nails, Beyond the Black River, and Queen of the Black Coast, and Karl Wagner's "Night Winds"

ivan said...

Ah, it was the early Seventies comic books that dunnit to me.
Conan wasn't a comedian then.

ivan said...

Ah, it was the early Seventies comic books that dunnit to me.
Conan wasn't a comedian then.

Randy Johnson said...

Great post.

I, too, would love to see more books in this genre(and please, no more Conan pastiches). I loved the early Elrics, Hawkmoons, Corums, but the last couple of Elrics I couldn't get through. I understand there's a new Hawkmoon, but after my disappointment in the Elrics, I've avoided it. You can't go back, I guess.

Some new stuff might rejuvenate the genre. We can only hope publishers might find some worthy books and give them a shot.

Another type I've grown bored with is these doorstop fantasies. I'm guessing they might be covered in later posts on the subject.

Richard Prosch said...

Great discussion. I read a lot of fantasy in the '80s, especially stories leaning towards SF like the Amber series or Valentine's Castle. Also ppreciated your mention of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. I met them first in Wonder Woman No. 202!!!

writtenwyrdd said...

I have to agree that larger-than-life characters are a must. And the main thrust of the plot should be Good vs. Evil (capital letters required.)

BernardL said...

Your passage from 'Bitter Steel' illustrates your post's intricate explanation of the genre very well.

Charles Gramlich said...

ivan, I actually didn't find Conan through the comics but through the Ace paperbacks. But lots of my friends did and remember those comics fondly.

Randy Johnson, I felt the same way about the new Elrics and haven't read the new Hawkmoon for much the same reason. The latest Elrics were all introspection and not much action. Most of those doorstops have been High fantasy and I'll talk a bit about that for sure.

Richard Prosch, wonder woman? wow, I didn't know Fafhrd and Mouser had appeared in other comics before. I know there was a graphic novel of them recently that I read, and it was OK but not quite wonderful.

writtenwyrdd, I'm going to talk about a difference in that capital letters good and evil with High fantasy.

BernardL, thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Bernita said...

I like your excerpt very much.
And I agree with your analysis, though I haven't read anywhere nearly as many as you.
Would like to see heroic fantasy revived.

laughingwolf said...

i think that was the book i had, charles... sounds familiar

Demon Hunter said...

I haven't read a lot of this type of fantasy, but I said that I would. I have a friend who reads it all the time and I figured I'd give it a try as well. :-D

Harry Markov said...

I am whisked away by the excerpt. I was looking for more well beyond the comment thread.

And the post is very educational. I read just a couple S&S novels and I just redirected to something else in the process of reading more. Must return to the genre.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernita, thanks. It's a great genre, great fun and great storytelling.

laughingwolf, I think Battle Circle combined three books that were originally published separately.

Demon Hunter, I think it's natural storytelling material.

Harry Markov, thanks, and there's lots of good stuff in the genre, although there are some duds as well.

Cloudia said...

You are a trusted guide through a genre I'm ignorant of, Charles.




Aloha, Friend

Comfort Spiral

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, that's very nice of you to say.

Lana Gramlich said...

I can hardly wait 'til we get your copies. I've always enjoyed such stories & can't wait to read yours.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, thankee sweetness.

Todd Mason said...

You can't separate the best S&S, such as Leiber's, and Vance's and Wagner's and Eisenstein's (and Joanna Russ when in the right mood), from S&S because those stories don't follow rules that only the hacks followed slavishly...

Todd Mason said...

You can't separate the best S&S, such as Leiber's, and Vance's and Wagner's and Eisenstein's (and Joanna Russ when in the right mood), from S&S because those stories don't follow rules that only the hacks followed slavishly...

Charles Gramlich said...

Todd, I'm not quite sure what you're saying. You can't separate S & S from S & S is kind of how it reads to me. Not sure. Thanks for dropping by, though.

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