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.