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.”