Lin Carter presents yet another anthology in his stellar Swords-and-Sorcery series. This one is Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians. Is there more than alliteration fueling the subtitle? He’s certainly doubled the thematic possibilities. Let’s see.
The Mighty Swordsmen comes close to delivering precisely as advertised, and even its single lapse is excellent. I admit to a lack of familiarity with the editor, Hans Stefan Santesson. He provided a short introduction, rambling about sorcery and what we’d probably now refer to as “deep time.” It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the stories inside, unless you want to find some reason to believe the events related might actually have happened. Nonetheless, Mr. Santesson shows a good eye for material.
Perhaps you are new to this planet, or have been living in a bomb shelter all your life with limited reading material. Maybe you recently stumbled upon a trove of Molly Hatchet album covers at a garage sale, with those paintings by Frank Frazetta and you start wondering what is all this about. Well, given those farfetched hypotheticals, or something similar, I’m here to offer the five writers you should familiarize yourself with to become conversant with the Swords and Sorcery genre.
I’m about two-thirds of the way through my haphazardly completed reviews of Appendix N authors. Andre Norton is in the batter’s box. I’ve not read much of her output, so I’m taking in a few of her Witch World novels before writing up my assessment. But this seems a good time to look back on what I’ve covered so far.
I’m comfortable in saying that I can understand why each of the authors made the list. I can either point to a specific instance in a novel (an item, monster, concept, etc.) that filtered into the rules of D&D or I can see how the tenor or flavor of the writing influenced the style of play Gary Gygax was attempting to encourage and the archetypes he was attempting to emulate through the character classes.
Most of the tales are adventure stories, sitting in varying positions along the pulp-to-literary stylistic spectrum. Importantly, most were entertaining. I can see the influence of a few of these writers in my own output (for better or worse, depending on how you perceive my work.) These are deep-seated influences. I’ve been reading this stuff for a long time. I’ve only rarely had to hunt up a book or two in order to familiarize myself with an Appendix N notable. Most of the authors have had works sitting on my shelves for years.
Now, if someone were to ask for three authors one must read from the first two-thirds of the list in order to get a handle on what D&D is all about, I’d suggest (in alphabetical order) Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. This is not intended to slight any of the others (in fact, most of the others are, in my opinion, better writers than Moorcock) but to single these writers out as having the greatest influence on the game. Of course the final third will include some heavyweights. Might Jack Vance knock one of these off the podium?* You’ll have to wait.
* What about Tolkien, you ask? J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on D&D is a matter of some controversy. I’m not sure I want to weigh in on that one. Not yet anyway.
It is only fair that I begin my web log post on Michael Moorcock with the positives of my assessment. He deserves recognition for his contribution to the field and I’m the last man to withhold his just due. Moorcock’s Law/Chaos dichotomy, along with Poul Anderson’s, was a seminal contribution to the alignment system of Dungeons and Dragons. Elric sits among the pantheon of notable fantasy characters. And while Moorcock did not invent the cursed sword, Stormbringer has become the epitome of the trope. In fact Dungeons and Dragons pays homage to it with the inclusion of the sword Black Razor in the funhouse adventure White Plume Mountain.
So Michael Moorcock’s deserved position in Appendix N remains undimmed, whatever I might think. And I do have an opinion. For whatever that’s worth.
The wellsprings of modern fantasy run deep. Very deep. People could write books about it. And they have. So if I have the temerity to toss my two-cents worth into the conversation I’d best limit the scope. I’m limiting myself to author’s who wrote in the Twentieth Century (some continue on into this century) and ignoring all the giants of prior centuries upon whose shoulders they stand. This is pure subjective opinion on my part. I’ve done no empirical research to support my conclusions, so take this a grain of salt the size to meet your USDA daily sodium intake.
I’d like to include writers such as E.R. Eddison and James Branch Cabell. But their influence appears to have waned. You might see a touch of Eddison in Clark Ashton Smith, or a hint of Cabell in Jack Vance. Might be a faint echo of both in Gene Wolfe. But I don’t see elements of either in much contemporary fantasy. So my personal preferences won’t play much part in this list.
Note that I’m excluding YA authors from the list. Hey, it’s my list. Write your own damn list if that bothers you.
On with it.
Number 10. Some essayists claim you should begin with your strongest argument. I’m a contrarian, or a fool. Maybe both. Meaning I’m beginning with an entrant whose qualifications I’m least certain about, Anne Rice. “Anne Rice,” you splutter, “doesn’t she write horror?” I don’t know. Could be. These definitions get nebulous at the borders. She writes about vampires, werewolves, and mummies in a more lyrical vein than most horror writers. I think she can be considered a fantasist. Whether she qualifies as a fantasy writer or not, she was certainly influential. The shelves in the bookstore wouldn’t look the same absent her popularization of the vampire. Modern urban fantasy wouldn’t exist in its current form without her. The Science Fiction/Fantasy section wouldn’t feature covers of sword-wielding biker chicks embracing half-clad vampires. So, Ms. Rice leads off at number 10.
Number 9. Jack Vance.The great Jack Vance brought us world-weary amoral heroes. He brought sparkling dialogue and a sardonic sense of humor. His influence comes primarily through his Dying Earth stories. You can trace the genealogy of stories set in a future Earth nearing the end of its habitability to Vance. There are earlier examples of the subgenre, sure (e.g., William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith.) But Vance popularized the concept. You can find anthologies paying homage to the Dying Earth. Gene Wolfe’s Long Sun books owe much to Vance. Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison, to name just a couple, have written books in this subgenre.
Number 8. Fritz Leiber. Leiber and Vance shared a literary sensibility. Fitting they’re paired here. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fathered any number of duos and odd couples. Leiber’s DNA is all over mismatched pairings ranging from Violette Mahan’s Dhulyn and Parno to Simon R. Green’s Hawk and Fisher.
Number 7. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fingerprints are all over fantasy. Tarzan helped popularize lost civilization stories. They are less common now in this time of satellites and Google Earth but writers from A. Merritt to Philip Jose Farmer used to spin those. ERB brought us the Sword and Planet or Planetary Romance novel. Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner, to name three, carried on that tradition. Wasn’t that long ago Disney released a big budget John Carter film. Word is Edgar Rice Burrough’s Inc. is trying to get another version in the works. Hollow Earth novels are still seeing publication. ERB’s influence continues.
Number 6. Michael Moorcock. The speed-writing peddler of the multiverse, Law vs. Chaos cosmological conflict, and albino, elf-like anti-heros. Others may have preceded him with some of these. Poul Anderson was writing independently about a Law/Chaos divide. But Moorcock owned it with his Eternal Champion cycle. The concept of the multiverse is common parlance now, popping up in everything from novels to television shows. Elric of Melniboné can almost be considered an archetype now, cf Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Number 5. Anne McCaffrey, mother of dragons. Time was you picked up a book with a dragon in it, you knew who the villain was. With The Dragonriders of Pern and those gorgeous Michael Whelan covers that all changed. Now you see a dragon on the cover it could just as easily be an ally as an enemy. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series can claim Pern as a progenitor.
Number 4. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. There’s the horror/fantasy question again, though there used to be little – if any – distinction made between fantasy, science fiction, and horror. HPL’s influence is unquestionable on horror, even science fiction (think Alien or any other H.R. Giger-involved film.) But he was also influential in the development of fantasy. Even immediately so. Think Conan, preventing a wizard from summoning a nameless cosmic horror from the gulfs in the blackness between the stars. This is HPL’s influence, the idea that the demon being conjured is not in fact a demon in the traditional sense at all, but an unknowable entity from a cold, uncaring universe with no interest in man one way or another. I’d argue that philosophically the “grimdark” school owes something to Lovecraft. And you know the Cthulhu mythos has wormed its tentacles deep within popular culture when you can buy a Cthulhu plush doll.
Number 3. Glen Cook. With The Black Company Cook altered the landscape of fantasy. Writing with a gritty, modern prose style, Cook laid the groundwork for the so-called ‘grimdark’ school. Without Cook there is no Joe Abercrombie, no Steven Erikson, possibly no Game of Thrones (though that’s hardly G.R.R. Martin’s only claim to fame.)
Number 2. Robert E. Howard. Can there be any question? One of the big three (along with HPL and Clark Ashton Smith) Weird Tales contributors, Howard was the quintessential pulp writer, churning out Westerns, boxing tales, hard-boiled detective stories, horror, and fantasy. He created the Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane, the barbarian-turned-king Kull, and the barbarian-turned-king Conan. Every broadsword wielding, mighty-thewed barbarian to come down the pike since owes his existence to Conan. From Brak the Barbarian to Druss the Legend, Howard’s influence is undeniable.
Number 1. Come on, say it with me. J.R.R. Tolkien. You saw that coming, right? Tolkien’s influence is deep and indelible. Starting with The Iron Tower and The Sword of Shannara the bookstore shelves have overflowed with Tolkien imitators. You couldn’t find a paperback fantasy back cover blurb in the 1980’s that didn’t compare the author to Tolkien. When people like something they want more of it. And if you’re going to imitate something you could do worse than The Lord of the Rings.
There you have it, the top ten. What do you think? Did I miss an obvious candidate? Is my order out of whack? Who is in your top ten?