As a teen, I read every Sword and Sorcery novel I could find. Even then, I knew much of it was poorly written. Worse, Robert E. Howard and many others could be downright racist. Yet I retain a sneaking affection for the adventure and magic of the best of the genre, particularly for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. However, when I sat down to write my own fiction, it took several years before I realized that I was trying to write S&S for adults of the modern era. Recently, I’ve taken to calling what I was doing New Sword and Sorcery as I queried my novel The Bone Ransom.
My affection has a long history, some of it embarrassing. I would just as soon forget how as a teen I struggled to write the first act of a verse play called The Lion At Bay that stole the plot of Conan the Conqueror. The same goes for many of the role-playing games I organized as a young adult, whose source books borrowed the racism and sexism of the pulps without question.
However, I remain proud of Witches of the Mind, my Master’s thesis on Fritz Leiber. It was inspired in part by Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. From the start, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had irony and wit that most S&S lacked. More importantly,Leiber’s social views evolved with the times, and in its final form showed the two heroes growing into responsible middle age and settling down with two feminist women in a culture inspired early Iceland. To this day, there is no question in my mind that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is the most literate S&S ever written, and proof that the genre can be more than it usually is. And it was only by being inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that I ever finished The Bone Ransom. When I tried to write classic S&S, I never got past the first few chapters.
So what do I mean by the New Sword and Sorcery? Basically, I mean a purging of outdated social outlooks. To start with, the stock figure of the stoic barbarian has to go. As a character, the barbarian is an uneasy mixture of Rousseau’s Noble Savage and obsolete sociological models, with all the racism those sources imply. Allegedly primitive cultures are much more complex than S&S depict. They may be illiterate, but they have a wealth of oral culture. Often, they have rich cultures in which art is part of everyday life, and elaborate ceremonies and dances. Historically, they tend to meet technological cultures as a group, not as individuals, and often manage to preserve their cultures and become enriched by trade. Simply by eliminating the stereotype of the barbarian, writers gain access to a wealth of untold stories and plot points.
The same is true of the standard female characters. Usually, in S&S, they are either pliant slave girls or strong women who come to a bad end. Either way, they are usually viewed as the prize for success — never as permanent partners or fellow parents. Such depictions may be fine for boys new to puberty, but are as limited and as repetitive as they are misogynist. Complex women characters add an adult complexity, especially if matrilineal societies are depicted, in which property and status come through the female line, and the male parental figures are uncles.
But perhaps the most restrictive aspect of classic Sword and Sorcery is that the story lines are usually power fantasies. The barbarian hero shows the decadence of other cultures by becoming a king. At best, an obscure farm-hand becomes the Chosen One. In either case, the hero gives nothing back, and takes only for themselves.These stories have their source in the nationalism and imperialism of the early 20th century. They do not even begin to touch on the post-colonialism of the last seventy years: of the struggle of colonies for independence and their generally troubled relationships with the colonizers. The stories that classic S&S tell have become irrelevant and obsolete.
Yet despite everything, adventure stories have their lasting appeal. George Orwell said that there is no reason that there could not be socialist adventure stories that featured activists fighting and outwitting the police. In the same way, there is no reason Sword and Sorcery could not feature realistic oral cultures and realistic women, and depict modern politics. So, presented for your consideration: New Sword and Sorcery.
Anybody with me?