July 27, 2019

Sword and Sorcery and the Aesthetics of Assault in D.M. Ritzlin's "The Infernal Bargain"

Sketch by Jessica K. Robinson.

Visitors have been navigating here from a small press's site: DMR Books. They have a blog feature called the "DMRtian Chronicles," a digest that feature sword and sorcery discussions. The publisher and writer, D.M. Ritzlin, included a few Spiral Tower posts. They are an interesting press. Here is their description: 
"DMR Books publishes fantasy, horror, and adventure fiction in the traditions of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and other classic writers of the pulp era. We are dedicated to bringing you the latest cutting edge action/adventure fantasy fiction, as well as reprinting obscure gems from days past."
When you sign up for the DMR newsletter you get a free anthology of new sword and sorcery tales.

As a literary scholar, one reads past works. Because attention and time are finite, literary scholars are cowards as regards our reading choices. We wait for others to curate canons, to lay the gold thread through the labyrinth of the archive, before reading new stuff. That's a problem.

But the cover of this free DMR anthology, however (The Infernal Bargain and Other Stories) was too compelling to deny. It encapsulates so many of the often paradoxical aesthetic qualities that distinguish sword and sorcery: (1) the playful marriage of seriousness and camp, (2) an emphasis on fast-paced narrative, (3) a kind of roughness and intensity of style, and (4) skulls. Lots of skulls.

As a bonus there is a giant @#$%ing demon with a lolling tongue to make Gene Simmons jealous.

The cover hooked me. The first story made me stay.

Sword and Sorcery and the Aesthetic of Assault in "The Infernal Bargain"

First, a summary: "The Infernal Bargain" relates the misfortunes of Avok Kur Storn, a Cytheran, as he is jerked around like a dog god's favorite squeak toy through the world of Nilztiria. He is storm-tossed, nearly spear-skewered, and then imprisoned by one-eyed bird-men; he is clandestinely drugged by a demon-haunted sorcerer, offered as a foul soul sacrifice, and then, as a kind of severed head of a cherry on this mound of body parts sundae, he is threatened by the demon himself. Avok survives it all, however, and vows never to forget.

This is an intense story, the literary equivalent of a balls-to-the-walls death-metal song, a narrative enactment of assault.

This characterization isn't meant to denigrate the story. "The Infernal Bargain" is excellent. As "pastiche," it triumphs. 

A few thoughts about pastiche...

A "pastiche" is a work that succeeds or fails depending on the intensity by which it mimics and vitalizes that of a previous aesthetic. For example, Stranger Things is (arguably) a pastiche of 1980s-era Amblin Entertainment films like E.T., Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, and Harry and the Hendersons, (and more), i.e. sci-fi, fantasy, and horror-themed films that feature an intergenerational cast of characters responding to violations of the ordinary, usually the 1980s suburban ordinary. 

The important point that the Stranger Things example shows is that successful pastiches do not slavishly hew to established convention by woodenly reproducing the past. Instead, successful pastiche is something akin to an ekphrastic love song in praise of those conventions. Stranger Things is clearly an attempt to re-capture some of the magic of the distinctive Amblin Entertainment aesthetic. More importantly, Stranger Things is the work of sincere artists trying to render new experiences and not just repetitions of the old.

In terms of sword and sorcery, "The Internal Bargain" vigorously and freshly participates in that aesthetic. Moreover, I would also argue, like Stranger Things, "The Infernal Bargain" is an example of artistically successfully pastiche. 

Let me highlight a few of the reasons why.

The opening exposition...

In two compressed paragraphs, the protagonist is introduced, the secondary world is sketched (with broad strokes), and the action ensues: a bizarre world, an interesting character, and an engaging conflict are rendered vividly with this terminal sentence:
"He managed to survive by clinging to a piece of driftwood, but his fellow Cytherans were unable to locate him in the swirling darkness."
Avok, like many sword and sorcery heroes before him, has been extracted from the ordinary of home and hearth and plunged into the chaos of a strange and hostile world.

Avok's tumble into the unknown recalls Cugel the Clever's flight via demon to the remote Land of Cutz in Eyes of the Overworld (1966). It brings to mind Thongor's descent into Lemuria in the opening of The Wizard of Lemuria (1965). It echoes the opening of Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails," when Valeria and Conan endure the barren, dragon-infested wasteland outside of the decaying city of Xuchotl. There is even something of Corwin's first psychedelic hellride through shadow in Nine Princes in Amber (1970). Indeed, the opening recalls several other sword and sorcery tales and engages a specific genre idiom with lightning-strike speed.

Although the story echoes sword and sorcery conventions, it doesn't only emulate them, however. Instead, it provides a new image: the formlessness of a storm-wracked sea at night; land, sky, vapor, and flashing lightning swirling into a boundless defilement of order. This is an enthralling start to the ensuing phantasmagoria. 


Sword and sorcery is a fantasy genre of secondary, autonomous, and cohesive worlds, but the world-building is subtle and oblique. In "The Infernal Bargain," much of the world-building is done economically and through the technique of the verbum novum, the new word: "Nilztiria," "Avok," "Cytherans," "Tul-theran slavers." These "verba nova," tiny brushstrokes, grant the world verisimilitude by indicating the vast distance in time and space from the readers' ordinary experience; they also suggest the autonomy, cohesion, and antiquity of the secondary world.

Additional world-building is done through dialog, the use of slightly antique and subtly bizarre diction such as Demstropux's excellently awkward verbalization: "There’s room in my soul-sack for two! Ho ho!" (my emphasis). World-building via dialog shines in the exchange between the demon, Demstropux, and the sorcerer, Ennek Taar.

Consider the sorcerer's dialog as he threatens the demon with a magical blade:
"Do you think you are the only one who has taught me dweomercraft, Demstropux? This ensorcelled dagger, fashioned from the fang of a long-extinct breed of dragon, has been attuned to you! Its slightest touch will cause you immeasurable pain [...]."
"Dweomercraft." "Ensorcelled" "Fashioned from the fang of a long-extinct breed of dragon." These diction and phrase choices do not only signify; they are also functioning aesthetically as well in the manner of poetry. Acoustically speaking, the words are melodious, and for the lover of sword and sorcery, such words, in narrative context, give something of the same pleasure experienced when reading the best lyrical poetry.

More could be said about the world-building technique, but let's move on.

Narrative / Plot...

The plot is episodic. It is structured as a narrative menagerie of sword and sorcery spectacle. Like exotic animals paraded before the bulging-eyes of the vulgar groundlings, the curious incidents of the storm, the bird-men, the sorcerer Ennek Taar, the demon Demstropux, the demon-flight, and so forth, aesthetically try the reader's imagination. For example, consider this strange moment when the demon, Demstropux, is about to enact revenge on the prone sorcerer Ennek Taar:
A smile broke across the demon’s monstrous face. Demstropux turned to the fallen hermit and resumed his arcane claw gestures. Ennek Taar, stunned by Avok’s blow, was barely cognizant of the fate that was to befall him. An ethereal silver strand began to rise from the hermit’s body. Translucent yet shimmering, the ghostly strand spiraled upwards in accordance with Demstropux’s gestures. “Yes, yes. Come to me,” said the demon sinisterly. He seemed to be taking erotic pleasure in the ritual. (my emphasis)
As moderns uninitiated in the occult mysteries of sorcery and demonology, our minds struggle to actualize this bizarre and morbid image of perverse arousal. From where on the body is the strange silver thread issuing? Navel? Chakras? Err... groin? For my money, I imagine a mist rising from eyes and mouth and accumulating, spiderweb style, into a thick strand. Why does this arouse the demon so? Such are the indescribable terrors of those who have truck with hell spawn.

Some might argue that this kind of plot of aesthetic assault--spectacle after spectacle after spectacle--is unsophisticated. Admittedly, it might be unsophisticated for a genre like high fantasy or gothic horror. In high fantasy, much of the aesthetic effect is about the psychological growth of the protagonists; their internal struggles and growth are just as significant as the external struggles of great battles. Gothic horror, accordingly, requires subtle atmosphere, the strategic rationing of narrative events for the building up of tension.

But "The Infernal Bargain" isn't high fantasy or gothic horror.

S&S and dark humor...

There are other elements worth mentioning but one more will suffice. The story is sprinkled with humor. Consider the following example. Some background: by threatening the demon, Avok convinces Demstropux to ferry him with his large wings from the sorcerer's hermitage back to his homeland of Cythera. As the demon and Avok are flying through the night sky, Avok insults by demon by demanding that he fly faster. Here's the ensuing hilarious scene:
[Demstropux] had, of course, been plotting treachery all along, but he could no longer wait for the perfect moment. Without warning he spun in midair and Avok found himself upside down. [...] “What are you doing?” he shouted. “Right yourself at once!” Demstropux did not obey, instead spinning once more in an attempt to shake off his troublesome burden. Avok clutched tighter and drew the enchanted dagger. “If I die, you die too!” He stabbed deep into the demon’s ribs and twisted the blade. A deafening roar of pain erupted from Demstropux’s throat and he began to plummet. [...] “Take it out! Take it out!” screamed Demstropux as they fell ever faster. Avok removed the dagger from the demon’s body, and Demstropux was able to correct his course before they plunged into the icy deeps. Neither man nor demon spoke for the rest of that bizarre flight.
This is pure comedy.

Which brings me to a final point, which can only be expressed aporically: "The Infernal Bargain" succeeds because it takes itself seriously enough not to take itself seriously.

You might need to read that again.

Part of sword and sorcery is its intradiegetic awareness of its own absurdity. Several times in the story Avok laughs at the absurdity of his situation. Consider when Avok has been swept from the sea onto a desolate, magic-haunted island: "He had a tendency to find humor in absurd situations. It was a quirk that proved detrimental at times, but now it lifted his spirits as he thought about the tales he would tell upon his return to Cythera." Or consider when Avok reflects on the strangeness of his night flight with a demon across dark waters: "The oddity of the night’s affair suddenly struck Avok as comical." Sword and sorcery can be campy and serious at the same time, the same way some of the best metal music can be both serious and ironic at the same time.

Look closely: you might discover a slight, hidden smile on the sword and sorcery writer's grim face.

July 22, 2019

A Critical Comparison of Sword and Sorcery and Espionage Fiction

Sketch by Jessica K. Robinson

During a conversation about the sword and sorcery (S&S) genre, the writer Daniel J. Davis brought up the espionage fiction (EF) genre, and specifically the James Bond franchise. 

Rehearsing the conversation will test patience because it has become centripetal, spinning out from an initial disagreement to an intellectually fecund hodgepodge of related questions. 

Sufficiently answering these questions would be require an entire convention, several panels, the intellectual labor of a book (or several books). So, the focus here will be much more narrow.

Thesis: sword and sorcery is a universal genre that will endure; espionage fiction, in comparison, is probably ephemeral and will pass away in time. Moreover, S&S shouldn't emulate EF's emphasis on male wish fulfillment fantasy.

Comparing Sword and Sorcery and Espionage Fiction

To substantiate this argument, let's get more concrete: consider two specific texts of the same medium (film) and a similar historical milieu of origin (Hollywood in the early 1960s).

For sword and sorcery, let's consider Don Chaffey's Jason and the Argonauts (1963), a widely acclaimed S&S film due to Ray Harryhausen's legendary stop-motion animations. For espionage fiction, Terence Young's Do No (1962), definitely not the best James Bond but nevertheless an iconic one (1962). 

Both film are based upon literary texts; moreover, both are archetypes of their respective genres: Jason and the Argonauts' (S&S film) and Dr. No (EF film). And, both are equally campy at times.

Bond's Dependence and External Motivation

Arguably, Bond is a dependent. Bond is an agent of MI6, a branch of the government of the United Kingdom. Accordingly, he is part of a pecking order. He benefits from the support provided by MI6, the agency, its associated engineers, and its intelligence operatives who provide him information.

Additionally, Bond's is not, technically speaking, self-motivated. Instead, he is externally motivated. His mission in Dr. No is an investigation at the behest of his superior, M.

Jason's Autonomy and Self-motivation

Jason in Jason and the Argonauts isn't dependent on an agency like MI6. He autonomously embarks on his quest, goes in search of the Golden Fleece, because he wants to claim the Thessalian throne, his divine inheritance. Authorized by the gods to embark, he is not part of a pecking order but establishes one himself by bringing together a crew of the Argo. Because Jason and the Argonauts takes place in a pre-industrial world, Jason doesn't have to rely on high-tech gadgets produced by engineers (except, perhaps, his ship). Let's not forget, though, his occasional recourse to divine aid.

Bond and Navigating Complex Systems

What is the central conflict of Dr. No? A super-intelligent villain, Dr. No, aims to exhort ransom payments from world governments. Bond has to unravel Dr. No's tangled conspiracy and disrupt it. Bond uses a variety of skills to do this: his charisma, his seduction skills, his ingenuity, his technology, and ultimately his fighting abilities (he throws Dr. No into boiling water).

Jason and External Conflict

What is the central conflict of Jason and the Argonauts? There is an artifact of legend, the Golden Fleece, that Jason seeks. In the course of discovering its whereabouts, Jason has to face a variety of external enemies: a giant Talos, a group of horrible harpies, a treacherous pass of clashing rocks, a hydre, and finally, the Dragon's Teeth -- death incarnate. Like Bond, Jason uses a variety of skills to achieve his goals, but his challenges are less complex than Bond's. They tend to be monsters that need killing.

Setting in S&S and EF: Historicity vs. Timeless Mythology

Dr. No takes place in Jamaica in the midst of the Cold War. The setting is very specific, geographically and historically speaking. Jason and the Argonauts takes place in a Mediterranean world that never was; this unreal Mediterranean world is a mythological rendering, somewhat out of time. Like Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age, the setting is timeless.

To generalize, Jason and the Argonauts' setting is universal and ahistorical whereas Dr. No's setting is particular and historical.

Theme of James Bond and Dr. No

Bond is historically contingent, requires some basic knowledge of Cold War politics (international espionage, spies, UK, MI6, etc.) so its claim to universality are tenuous. One could argue EF is about the power of an augmented man, a kind of proto-cyborg, except the prostheses that supplement the protagonists are gadgets and at-broad systems of support. It makes sense that the pioneers of 1980s Cyberpunk would pull from the tropes of EF in the 1980s.

Conclusion: Why S&S will Endure Longer than EF

Dr. No is a wish fulfillment fantasy dramatizing the adventures of (excuse this irreverent term) a boyish man who uses all the gadgets he needs to beat the bad guy and nail the bikini model.

Jason and the Argonauts treats universal psychological archetypes: the slaying of dragons, the defeat of death, the triumph over our inevitable demise (consider the final skeleton fight where Jason literary fights incarnations of death and triumphs). 

Both are entertaining films. Both are fun. Both are occasionally campy. But one possesses artistic potential. Guess which one?

Some would like to conflate sword and sorcery with the same kind of adolescent masculinist fiction represented by Dr. No. They shouldn't. S&S is superior to EF. Arguably, S&S is a modern incarnation/iteration of epic and heroic poetry, a narrative architecture that is deep part of the human experience.

For artistic, philosophical potential, sword and sorcery triumphs over espionage fiction; and it's at least equal to espionage fiction for entertainment value.

Post-script: EF fiction is ephemeral because it does not take itself seriously, is merely entertainment. It doesn't seem to aspire to art (and that's o.k.). There is some S&S, however, that is artistically ambitious. In my opinion, the S&S that apes the gender dynamics of EF will pass away, not necessarily because of those gender dynamics, their unpopularity, their non-PC nature, but instead because focusing on male wish fulfillment fantasy is a symptom of immaturity, lack of sophistication, and boorishness.  Inversely, the S&S that acknowledges its origins in epic poetry, the greatest literary art, will endure.

July 12, 2019

"The Diamond in the Tang Where the Quillons Meet": A Sword and Sorcery Response to Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis

Drawing by Jessica K. Robinson
Fritz Leiber  (1910-1992) is one of the great stars of the sword and sorcery constellation along with Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Lin Carter, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and many more. Moreover, Leiber can be regarded as forging the term for the kind of heroic fantasy his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales helped to epitomize. Leiber did so in a few letters to fanzines, Ancalagon and Amra in 1961. Here is an except from a widely-cited letter to Amra (April 6th, 1961):
I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story-- and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!
Leiber brings "culture-level," "supernatural element," and specifically distinguishes S&S fiction from "historical adventure" and "international espionage."

These caveats are worth analyzing closely.

"Culture-level." Most S&S takes place in a pre-modern, pre-gunpowder, pre-industrial world, although there are exceptions (e.g. several will argue that Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane's stories are S&S despite Kane's use of firearms).

"Supernatural element." Most S&S pits protagonists against the supernatural. Black-robed sorcerers, eldritch tentacle-demons, sexy vampire-witches, giant slavering apes, gore-mouthed cyclops, etc.: these are not the good guys. They are dangerous, irredeemable, killable-without-any-guilt enemies. Moreover, the protagonists ploy their death art against them, and the sword dance that ensues is a key spectacle of the genre.

Many will cite the distinctive ontological status of the supernatural in S&S unreal worlds as fundamentally transgressive to sharply distinguish S&S from epic fantasy or high fantasy. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, there are good wizards, good elves, good tree monsters, even good... Gollums. In S&S, however, by and large, the supernatural is an abomination that must be beheaded, split in twain, garroted, skewered, introduced to the pointy end of a blade in other ways, and so forth.

Some literary genealogy: S&S's relationship to the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft needs to be addressed Doing so might begin to explain the distinctively irredeemable nature of the supernatural in S&S.

If we accept that Robert E. Howard, with his Kull stories, created S&S, then we should be ready to acknowledge that at this time Howard was under the literary influence of H.P. Lovecraft. Their voluminous correspondence is available in a fine edition by Hippocampus Press. Also, Howard was not just publishing in but also reading (and enjoying) Weird Tales and contributing to the Lovecraft circle's inside-joke pseudo-bibliographies and unreal mythologies.

A key element of Lovecraft's philosophical outlook was his materialism, atheism, and scientific view of the world, which conditioned him to view the supernatural idiosyncratically as the "most terrible conception of the human brain." He described it in this way: "a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space." The supernatural, for Lovecraft, is bad news (to say the least).

This idea is clearly contra to other fantasists like Tolkien, whose Catholic faith reconciled him to the supernatural. Lovecraft's anti-supernaturalism, however, is a powerful aesthetic resource, one that Howard drew from as he created S&S.

Lovecraftian anti-supernaturalism clearly influences the way the supernatural manifests in Robert E. Howard's S&S. Arguably, it ramifies in the later evolution of the genre.

The thematics of this famous literary enterprise--the meaninglessness of humanity as it is juxtaposed against the vast cosmos, the unfathomable indifference and occasional hostility of outer spaces, the paranoid idea that all is not as it seems and that there are watchers waiting, lurking--these were part of the gloriously fecund muck that vomited out our beloved S&S.

Moving on.

Sword and sorcery is not (necessarily) historical fiction. Still assuming Howard created S&S, we must also acknowledge his love of history and of writing historical fiction, and how this affinity influenced the shape S&S took.

It is firmly established that Howard's S&S tales, specifically the Conan stories, allowed the commercially-minded writer to scratch his historical fiction itch without having to do tons of research and so arrest his literary production. A legacy of that is that historical verisimilitude and actual historical facts aren't a sufficient defining characteristic of S&S. Sure, some S&S can be set in an actual historical epoch rather than a secondary fantasy world with funny names, but a defining characteristic of S&S is its lack of a need for historical verisimilitude.

Finally, espionage fiction. This confuses me. I am not sure why Leiber makes this distinction. James Bond novels and international espionage fiction in general don't seem to have much in common with S&S other than its emphasis on the literary archetype of the high status competent male. So, Leiber's distinction seems gratuitous here. I could be wrong.

Winnowed to its essential elements, Leiber's definition of S&S is pretty dang specific: S&S is set in a premodern world, the supernatural must be present, historical accuracy isn't a concern, and it is not espionage fiction.

Is this a sufficient definition? It doesn't seem to be for a lot of people. For example, Morgan Holmes, Jared Trueheart, and Daniel J. Davis think that S&S is fundamentally a genre about masculine prowess.

They insist that S&S is male-centric and that its masculinist elements are the key to its appeal to readers. Sword and sorcery has balls, they insist hysterically.

To an extent, one might understand where they are coming from. Look at the heaps of creased-spined paperback S&S published in the 1960s and 70s, and you will find lots of evidence to confirm their view. Specifically, look at the covers of those beautiful novels. What will you see?

Frazetta. And several other artists emulating and paying homage to Frazetta's genius. Accordingly, assuming Robert E. Howard created S&S, you can look at the original issues of Weird Tales that published the first S&S yarns and you will see the beautiful (and scantily clad) women of Margaret Brundage squirming in the arms of a barely-recognizable Conan.

If you judged S&S by its covers, then you would assume that it is fundamentally a genre of the alpha male, fighting and killing evil, and taking as a prize the sexy damsel.

We learned this in kindergarten: never judge a book by its cover.

Is that all S&S is? Or, is such a characterization an insulting simplification of a highly artistic genre of imaginative literature that actually contains surprising philosophical depths?

I think Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis are wrong to anti-intellectualize S&S. Sword and sorcery is more than alpha male fantasy. Consider Conan's famous answer to BĂȘlit's question, "What do you believe?" The usually taciturn, grim, alpha male responds with a monologue that raises my hackles every time I read it:
He shrugged his shoulders. 'I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.'
Fundamentally, S&S is about the human condition, our ephemeral bodies, our finitude, and our existential struggles in a cruel and often hostile world; and, more importantly, it grants readers symbolic agency, even power, in that struggle.

It’s strange and confusing that Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis insist on the exclusivity of a gender framework. This is what S&S about, when it is the best:
“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
"Time and chance happeneth to them all," booms the cosmos. Conan's antiphonal confession: "I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

From the myopic, gender-exclusive lens of Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis, Conan's profound answer to the riddle of our tragic vulnerability to the violence of time is uninteresting, a distraction in the narrative thrust of a story speeding toward tits, glazed abs, rocking beds, and death dealing, a minor blip before the sword dance begins and, to quote Davis, the dubious scopophiliac pleasure of watching as "Conan gets hot and heavy with Belit."

Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis are wrong to dig in on this one.

Conan's response is not a distraction.

Conan's response is the diamond set into the center of the tang where the quillons meet in the sword of the genre.