Recently Morgan Holmes, a sword and sorcery expert, was interviewed by masculinity writer, Jared Trueheart, about the genre of sword and sorcery and its relevance to male readers. It was an interesting interview. Having written for the Robert E. Howard United Press Association since 1992 and several other Howard and genre-fiction related topics, Holmes is a fountain of knowledge.
With respect, though, Trueheart's focus on the gender dynamics of sword and sorcery is too narrow. Gender dynamics are an important facet of S&S, of course, but there is much more about the genre.
The High Status Competent Male as Archetype
Asked by Trueheart to discuss the unique appeal of sword and sorcery to male readers, Holmes states, "There is a magnetism of the alpha male rising in an adverse situation and prevailing." This isn't a distinctively sword and sorcery quality. There are several genres that focus on competent and high status men, and Holmes brings up a few: espionage fiction (James Bond), adventure (Allan Quartermain), detective fiction (Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade), wilderness survival (Beauty Smith), modernist novel (Jake Barnes), and several more genres and writers. Arguably, there is nothing distinctively S&S about fiction that treats the archetype of the high status competent male.
The high status and competent male is an archetypical protagonist that is deployed in many genres. A lot of sword and sorcery is linked to that archetype, of course, and the Conan the Cimmerian stories are a great example. Nevertheless, there are lots of examples of sword and sorcery where the high status competent male is not essential.
Consider Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" stories. If--and only if--one excuses Fafhrd's clownishness and ignores some of the difficulties that he clumsily gets himself into, one might argue that this lummox is a "man's man," a high status and competent male; but Leiber doesn't goes out of his way to emphasize Fafhrd's high status and/or his competence. The same goes for his companion, the Gray Mouser, who is physically diminutive, sneaky, and not very masculine, hardly a man's man.
Jack Vance's Dying Earth series comes to mind, specifically The Eyes of the Overworld. Cugel the Clever is one of the most memorable sword and sorcery protagonists there is and he is anything but traditionally masculine. He's an amusing twerp, a kind of harlequin figure. Although Cugel's taste for voluptuous women is insatiable, he is a fashion and food connoisseur, avoids physical altercations, and spends the novel waffling between sweat-streaked panic and bombastic overconfidence.
One also recalls the Albino Emperor, Elric of Melniboné, Thrall of Arioch, who is sickly, effeminate, anxiety ridden, not in control of his emotions, even hysterical at times.
And there are more examples...
The "high status competent male" is powerful archetype. There is no doubt that, as fantasy, this archetype resonates with adolescent boys and men, myself included. However, when sword and sorcery is analyzed with a wide enough angle, the archetype is not a defining characteristic of the genre. There are several examples of S&S that have no truck with the archetype, so universalizing claims that S&S is a form of masculine writing are questionable. A weaker claim is called for: lots of S&S fiction is masculine in nature.
S&S Criticism: Gender Myopia and the Gothic
Defining sword and sorcery is infamously difficult. Several folks tried to do so at a Sword and Sorcery Panel at Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas.
Holmes published an apropos (and excellent) essay in the academic anthology, The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror, that might help. The essay is titled, "Gothic to Cosmic: Sword-and-Sorcery Fiction in Weird Tales" and it explores the origins of sword and sorcery. In this essay, Holmes makes a compelling argument: "Historical adventure, gothic fiction, and planetary romance all came together to form the sub-genre." What is so compelling about this is Holme's appropriate inclusion of "gothic fiction." Why?
There are several parallels between the controversies surrounding gothic fiction and sword and sorcery. Like sword and sorcery, gothic fiction--at least at its historical origin point--seemed distinguished by a gender dynamic, i.e. a protagonist of a specific gender (female) and a gendered group of readers (women). Gothic fiction, originating in the pseudo-medievalist works of Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, and M.G. Lewis, always featured a terrorized female protagonist, a middle-class virginal woman who finds herself incarcerated in a castle, a maze, a labyrinth, and who is then harried by supernatural threats that are holdovers of a medieval past. Consider The Castle of Otranto (1764), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), The Monk (1796): all of these quintessential gothic novels feature labyrinths, supernatural occurrences, and medieval imagery, and a central terrorized female.
One might plausibly argue that the gender dynamics of gothic fiction are what make it distinctive. One could even speculate about why more women seemed to read gothic novels in the late 18th and early 19th century by examining its unique appeal to the female reader of the time. But by focusing too narrowly on the gender dimensions of gothic literature, one misses that it is concerned with far more than gender.
The gothic novel of the late 18th century, this central influence on sword and sorcery, is a symptom of the revolutionary changes happening in 18th century western Europe: the French revolution, the end of absolutism as a viable form of government, the blooming of industrial production, the decline of the power of the church, and more. The gothic is centrally concerned with the supernatural, with aesthetically violating the natural, the ordinary, and the real. If one focused too long on its gender dynamics, one wouldn't see its broader philosophical and historical significance.
Sword and Sorcery and the Violence of Time
As regards sword and sorcery: I do not think the gender dynamics of the genre are unimportant. For example, in Holmes' S&S essay, he analyzes C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry stories and observes, "Many of Moore's stories have a suggestion of sexuality to them, and they could be considered feminine sword and sorcery." While the concept of "feminine" and "masculine" sword and sorcery is interesting, the central theme of sword and sorcery has less to do with gender and more to do with being human, with being a finite and vulnerable body subject to the ferocity of time: aging, violence, and the constraints of society and tradition.
The sword and sorcery hero or heroine--whether he be a high status competent male with bulging pecs or she be a rebellious spitfire with bulging boobs--is distinctive less for his or her gender and more for his or her unique enlightened stance toward a world that is changing rapidly: as ephemeral forms, the sword and sorcery hero and heroine stands stubbornly against the yawning vastness of cosmic, deforming time. They are animated by the understanding that life is brief, that the body weakens, and that the grains fall from cup to cup.
Conan, Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, Jirel of Joiry, Cugel the Clever, Elric of Melniboné: they are all poised on the precipice of radical change--a dying earth, a cosmic struggle, a decaying empire, the retreat of a frontier; indeed, these S&S heroes are united less because of their gender, their status, and even their competence and more by their heroic disregard of social convention, their indifference to status hierarchies, their love of life, and their enlightened understanding of time and the irresistible threat it poses. Despite their context of radical change, they flourish, even glory, in their finitude and ephemerality as we readers, subject to time ourselves, cradle and dogear their acid-rich, paperback worlds.
Discussing aging boxers with August Derleth in 1933, Robert E. Howard, the creator of sword and sorcery, wrote this, which, by analogy, captures a central theme of sword and sorcery, a genre acutely concerned with the tragic passage of time, the way form inevitably and irresistibly decays into formlessness:
"It makes me feel like an old man to watch fighters I knew in their prime, get slapped around by kids. A fighter’s life is short at best, no time to waste, no time to rest; the spot-light shifts, the clock ticks fast, all youth becomes old age at last. Same way with writers, too, some of them."
Gender aside, sword and sorcery dramatizes our gender-neutral, all-too-human fight against (and inevitable defeat by) time.
That notwithstanding, here is something Holmes said in Trueheart's interview that I completely agree with:
"I think men benefit reading period. There is good entertainment with writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Jack London, Ian Fleming, and the better sword and sorcery fiction. Contrary to popular conception, sword and sorcery has both the mental and the physical. Conan and the Continental Op [a protagonist created by Dashiell Hammett, popular in pulp fiction magazines, the proto-typical hard-edged detective] are both manipulating situations in addition to the action that we normally associate with the fiction. The very first Conan story opens with him working on a map of an area the Hyborians know nothing about. Conan learns various languages and has listened to philosophers.
"Both the mental and the physical." Indeed.