Flashing Swords #1: A Master Class in Exotica

Lin Carter opens the introduction of his first collection in the Flashing Swords series with a definition of Sword & Sorcery. I’ll quote it below in its entirety. It will provide an interesting benchmark. Do the stories included match this definition? If not, does it matter?

We call as story Sword & Sorcery when it is an action tale, derived from the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land, age, or world of the author’s invention — a milieu in which magic actually works and the gods are real — a story, moreover, which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil.

Carter also provides a brief history of the origin of SAGA: the Swordsmen and Sorcerer’s Guild of America. What I like most about that history is this line: “Think of it: an authors guild with no crusades, blacklists, burning causes, or prestigious annual awards.” That thought does my bitter, basalt heart good. I want to belong to such a group, a drinking club of scribblers that contains within its bylaws its own automatic dissolution the first time any of its members use its platform to espouse — anything.

Fritz Leiber leads off with The Sadness of the Executioner. I doubt anyone reading this post requires an introduction to either the author or the characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. So, let’s skip that bit. Leiber’s stories of the duo are characterized by an affection for — if not affectation of — the bizarre, the outré, and outlandish. Like a rococo palace, nothing goes unadorned. There are no plain, merely utilitarian features. Executioner is a story as a piece of art, from its narrative conceit of the Death of Newhon artistically filling his quota while considering his role in existence, to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s narrow escape of Death’s sentence through luck and the physical expression of their individual characteristics. It is all layered, from the descriptions of the players to the droll description of violent demise. The story also serves as a reminder that the “hero” of an S&S yarn might more accurately be described by the term “protagonist.” Good stuff, though it should decidedly not be used as the introductory tale of the Fafhrd and Mouser corpus.

Does Executioner meet Carter’s definition of S&S? I’d say it fits exactly. A perfect match.

Next: Morreion by Jack Vance. If Leiber relishes in the outré and rococo, Vance practically wallows in it. He is the stylist’s stylist, yielding position only — if at all — to Clark Ashton Smith. Here Vance provides one of the classic Dying Earth stories, a tale almost reaching novel length.

Vance’s typical cast of urbane, witty blackguards, turncoats, schemer, and backstabbers takes the stage. Even more so than the previous tale in this volume, sheer invention carries the narrative forward, leading the cabal of treacherous mages through increasingly bizarre locations `in search of IOUN stones. Vance conveys on space-faring palaces to the ends of the universe, using only his orotund lexicon and baroque syntax. Really, the man is just showing off. I, for one, don’t mind it a bit.

But, is it, per Carter, S&S? This is a tougher call than the previous. The story lacks a “stalwart warrior;” the “Sword” in S&S. And one might quibble that, instead of being in conflict with “the forces of supernatural evil,” Vance’s protagonists are the forces of supernatural evil. So, I’d say it doesn’t fit the definition? Does it matter? Not to me. Not in the least.

Poul Anderson’s The Merman’s Children follows. This story almost qualifies as a representative example of the S&S genre. Almost, but not quite. For protagonists, Anderson provides us with mermen. And, being the gifted, inventive writer he is, these aren’t merely humans with gills. These are creatures whose motives do not align perfectly with those of men. Anderson again indulges his fascination with Norsement, employing his considerable historical knowledge to include period authentic details that add verisimilitude; making a tale featuring water-breathing fantasy creatures feel grounded and real. The locations, language, and characters are the least ostentatious and colorfully bizarre of any of the fours stories, yet it still holds its own as a work of imagination. Anderson characteristically wants to know how the miraculous functions, the workings of the machinery of the wondrous. While his working this out aids suspension of disbelief and grounds his tales, it doesn limit the height of his castles in the sky. Merman might be the best pure S&S yarn in this volume (clearly passing the Carter test) but it is the least — prismatic.

Finally, we have Lin Carter and The HIgher Heresies of Oolimar. Carter is often dismissed as a derivative writer. Be that as it may, he makes a virtue of mimicry by consciously emulating the greats. With Oolimar, Carter suggests in his intro, he is continuing a trend in working in his own style. That is possible, I suppose. Personally, I believe Carter takes his stylistic inspiration for this story primarily from Clark Ashton Smith, and secondarily from Lord Dunsany. Oolimar is the first in a series of stories about Amalric, a demi-god in the mold of Hercules, going about his heroics on a planet with the typically Carterian name of Thoorana. With this story we are back to inventiveness as a higher good than realism. Carter gives us a virtual immortal for a protagonist along with an almost Vancian wizard as a sidekick. These are the normal, baseline features; our compass in a world filled with increasingly bizarre monsters and creatures. All of this charming weirdness serves as background color for a sort of Catch-22 satire on religion, with Carter creating an amusingly outlandish philosophy. The truth is, whatever his reputation, when Carter wished to stretch himself, he could sparkle.

Does Carter’s story fit his own definition of S&S. Yep.

What about some of my stuff? Does it pass the Carter test? If you’re curious, check out Thick As Thieves and let me know your verdict.