At Robert E. Howard Days this June, on the 4th Annual Glenn Lord Symposium, I presented a paper titled, "Conan the Compassionate: 'Red Nails' and the Dehumanizing Stalemate War." Videographer and REHUPAn Ben Friberg uploaded a video of it. You can watch it here, if you're interested.
In the paper, I argue that Conan, and his female compeer in this tale, Valeria, are distinguished from the dehumanized denizens of the decaying, war-torn city of Xuchotl because of a surprising capacity to show compassion to each other. In contrast, the two factions who engage in bloody warfare--the Tecuhltli and the Xotalanc--are distinguished by their inhumanity, by their absolute lack of compassion.
Rehearsing every detail of this argument isn't necessary to reiterate the paper's central claim: sword and sorcery is a literature through which runs a strong vein of elemental, human compassion.
Several protagonists of sword and sorcery, Conan the Cimmerian not least of all, are characterized by virtue of their valuing of individual human dignity. Though many S&S protagonists are death-dealers who glory in battle and blood and eschew compassion strategically, many are nevertheless acutely aware of the vulnerability and finitude of the ephemeral human form. Not necessarily heroes who seek to sacrifice themselves for others, S&S heroes are often stirred to action by human suffering.
Here's an example. Many argue that Solomon Kane is an Ur-source of the sword and sorcery protagonist: consider his famous reaction in "Red Shadows" to the horrible spectacle of human suffering, a raped and bleeding young woman:
Suddenly the slim form went limp. The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly."Dead!" he muttered.Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils."Men shall die for this," he said coldly.
I recently read a story by Michael Meyerhofer, "Then, Stars," published in the most recent issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly that powerfully demonstrates this surprising element of S&S, its occasional thematic preoccupation with compassion. Meyerhofer's story is an emotionally powerful chronicle of an anonymous soldier's last words. The aesthetic strategy of the story is to coax the reader into focusing on the death of an anonymous soldier, to "exorcise" this soldier's anonymity. The story itself represents a rhetorical act of compassion, the translation of what is traditionally a minor, supporting character (the squire) into a main character.
Let me summarize it before proceeding (spoilers galore):
The story relates the dying words of a squire who has been dragged bleeding from a battlefield where he had been left for dead. In a first person narrative p.o.v., the squire recounts how he became a squire to Sir Bryson of Akonbree, how he followed Sir Bryson into a battle with the Shii-duán, and how he was mortally wounded by a Shii-duán who caught him unawares during the battle. After the battle, as he is lying wounded, night falls, and the Shii-duán come into the field. At first the dying squire thinks they are looters. Instead, he discovers that they are gathering the wounded and giving quick death to those who are suffering. Eventually he is discovered by a Shii-duán, one Eli Ben-Sodr, who can communicate with him. The squire learns of an important Shii-duán custom: if they can be given, a dying person's last words are sacred. By and by the squire is taken to Eli Ben-Sodr's house where he is attended and his pain alleviated (as much as is possible). The squire is then asked to tell his story. The reader realizes that what they have been been reading is in fact a transcription of the squire's final words.
This is a powerful, artfully told story that inverts a lot of conventional S&S tropes. The protagonist isn't powerful at all but a wounded soldier who is dying. The enemies, the Shii-duán, aren't dehumanized foes who the powerful protagonist kills en masse; instead, they are noble in their own way and live by a code. There are also representations of "domestic" (ordinary) spaces in the story, a straw-lined deathroom in Eli Ben-Sodr's house populated by servants, Ben-Sodr's wife, and his young daughter (conventionally S&S is set in extraordinary spaces). One might argue because "Then, Stars," inverts so many tropes of S&S--the powerful protagonist, the hordes of dehumanized enemies, the emphasis on extraordinary (not domestic) spaces--that the tale ceases to be S&S and something else. Perhaps. But I don't think so.
This story maintains its status as sword and sorcery because of the outlook of the protagonist. Despite the squire's impending death, he maintains a grim determination to live and, most importantly, to justify his existence even as he dies anonymously in darkness. By virtue of their intense (though ephemeral) experiences, their powerful (though finite) sensoriums, sword and sorcery heroes become their own monuments by living.
To clarify, consider this passage, where the squire is recounting being carried from the battlefield with a spear still stuck in his abdomen:
I'm no poet so I don't have the words for how much it hurt when they moved me. I don't remember screaming but they say I carried on so loud and pitiful, one of Eli's sons wanted to slit my throat--maybe mercy, maybe nerves. Only Eli stopped him and I passed out instead. They took me to their home. I slept most of the way, but when I woke, the hurt wasn't as bad. I looked up and saw the first tendrils of moonlight peeking behind a dark sky, like bare parchment peeking through spilled wine. Then, stars.
"Like bare parchment peeking through spilled wine. Then, stars." What a powerful, singular, yet archetypical image, a hauntingly beautiful allegory for the transition from life to death that this story dramatizes.
Meyerhofer's story blew me away. It reminds me of the great thematic range of sword and sorcery, its contemporary fecundity as a living literary tradition. Moreover, it shows how S&S can incorporate powerful protagonists and enervated protagonists; how S&S, surprisingly, is concerned with compassion, our capacity to withdraw it and our equally surprising (perhaps more surprising) capacity to give it in the midst of violent conflict.
Finally, Meyerhofer's story reaffirms why S&S, as campy as it sometimes can be, nevertheless contains the germ, the potential to render high literary art: it is concerned with nothing more nor less than life lived intensely unto death.
In the world of sword and sorcery, the ephemeral human form is destined for formlessness. The sword and sorcery protagonist lives intensely. Why? From their point of view, death is ever present, looming above, like the infinite stars.