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.