Sword And Sorcery

The plot of a sword and sorcery novel invariably concerns a quest—at the order of the queen, king, sorcerer, or some-such—for jewels, wealth, magic totems, sacred relics, magic texts, a charmed locket or mystical artifact, or for a lovely and nubile girl kidnapped by evil, barbarian people. Subsequently, the hero engages in a long journey and/or chase, searching for the missing quantity, encountering beasts and magics that try to stop him. He usually finds what he wants. The form takes its name from the action of the story, which is nearly always generated by the clash between swords and sorcery—the hero preferring the more human weapon in his battle against inhuman forces that have magical powers.

Like Lovecraft's work, sword and sorcery novels are always being reprinted—primarily in paperback—and enjoy a cyclical popularity boom that can widen the market considerably for several years at a time before the readership is satiated. Robert E. Howard's books about Conan the Barbarian—a muscular soldier of fortune, barbarian king, saviour of virgins, slayer of dragons, antagonist of sorcerers, and all-around superman—enjoyed enormous popularity beginning in the middle 1960's (Conan, Conan ofCimmeria, Conan the Freebooter, Conan the Wanderer, Conan the Adventurer, and so on). Michael Moorcock's novels about Elric, another swordsman, and Fritz Leiber's excellent series about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have also won steady patronage from a large number of readers.

The end-all and be-all of sword and sorcery is action. The delicious anticipation of horror in the dark fantasy is sacrificed for one explosive fight and chase sequence piled atop another. Whereas, in science fiction, the background is the most important element, the pace is the most vital thing about this sub-type of fantasy; it should be breakneck.

Unfortunately, the bulk of sword and sorcery fiction is distinctly inferior, regardless of its color and verve. This is true, primarily, because too many writers forget that plot complications must be generated by a character's actions and not by one whim of Fate after another. Desperate to accelerate the pace, writers construct series of obstacles which they then propel the hero through, never realizing that the lack of cause and effect in the plotting eventually leads to boredom.

This is the right way to establish the challenges in a hypothetical heroic quest: Your hero is stubborn, bullheaded but a likable fellow who won't quit until the job is done. He accepts an assignment from a White Magician to find the magician's daughter who has been kidnapped and carried off by a Black Magician, an evil sorcerer. When the hero reaches the borders of the warlock's kingdom, he receives a supernatural warning to stay away. Being the kind of man he is, he ignores the warning and plunges ahead. Now, when the warlock dispatches legions of the living dead and countless other forces to kill the hero, the successive battles are due to cause and effect: the prime cause is the hero's personality.

Too often, writers do not develop cause and effect, but confront their heroes with monsters and supernatural forces in a random fashion, so that their triumphs over each are not, as they should be, small triumphs over the villains as well.

Furthermore, a sword and sorcery hero must—with rare exception—be all-powerful, thereby negating any possibility of real and lasting injury to him. The suspense is nil. A superman who has no problems with which the reader can identify is largely unsympathetic. The result, frequently, is cardboard characterization.

There are, then, two ways to avoid this trap. First, you can use a hero who has obvious flaws and physical limitations, so that each fight he engages in is dangerous, each wound he sustains is serious and painful. Though the basic requirements of the sword and sorcery form make such a hero less acceptable than his strongman brothers, it can be done by an established sword and sorcery writer or by talented new authors in the field. Second, you can opt for a strongman lead, but surround him with a few intimates of whom he is inordinately fond; these secondary characters will be far more mortal than your hero, appealing to the reader, so that when one of them dies or is hurt, the reader will be emotionally touched by the incident. And, directly, the hero can be made to seem more real and human through his own grief at the friend's fate; if he cannot be physically harmed, himself, he can at least be emotionally damaged. Fritz Leiber, in his Gray Mouser stories and most notably in "111 Met in Lankhmar" in his book Swords and Deviltry, makes fine use of this second technique.

In sword and sorcery fantasy, all of the character motivations in Chapter One are useful. A hero may set out on a quest to recover a kidnapped maiden because he is being paid to do this (Greed) or because he is attached to her and wants her for his own (Love). He may seek out a fabled magician who holds the key to his parentage and fortune (Self-discovery), or go after a magical device (Greed for Power). He may begin a quest because he is beholden to a king, queen, or sorcerer (Duty), or because he has been angered by the acts of another warrior or sorcerer or king (Revenge). Perhaps a curse has been placed upon him, and he must venture into strange lands in search of the magic to relieve him of this spell (Self-preservation). Perhaps, initially, he strayed into a private estate owned by a warlock (Curiosity), had a spell cast upon him, and was ordered on a quest (Self-preservation). The possibilities are endless, the combinations complex. The only warning is: As in the other genres, the hero must be motivated by more than one thing, by more than a single obsession.

No writer I can think of—aside from Fritz Leiber, occasionally—currently writes sword and sorcery fantasy for anything other than the sheer vitality and color it offers. It can transport the reader away from his cares as well as any other genre can, if he is predisposed to it. And if, once he's finished the final page, the reader has gotten nothing more from the experience than solid entertainment—no grain of philosophy, no new understanding—who is to say that the book did not deliver enough? We are all, more than anything else, story tellers, not moralists.

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