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.
Completing a manuscript and typing “The End” is always a great feeling. It’s an accomplishment, the culmination of endless invested hours. But “The End” isn’t really the end. Not even close.
Once you find a home for the book a host of new tasks descend upon you. We’re assuming for the purposes of this post that the book has a publisher, and is not being self-published. That option carries with related, but divergent necessities. Where to start?
The tide of Yule is ebbing this annus horribilis. (Has the near match between annus and anus ever been more appropriate?) Good riddance, I suppose. Still, I’ve made the best of it. I hope you have as well, dear reader.
This anthology reads like the literary equivalent of hosting a costume party, but neglecting to mention that aspect to most of the guests.
Barbarians II has three, count them, three editors credited. I wonder what about this endeavor required so many hands on deck. Richard Adams’ introduction jokingly discusses the etymology and history of the word barbarian. I found this introduction — and the title — odd in a collection in which barbarians are few and far between. Though, in fairness, the intro did suggest that the word barbarian is, ultimately, meaningless. So, touché, Adams, I guess.
The important question is: are the stories any good? Let’s see, shall we?
The Toads of Grimmerdale. Andre Norton. I have written about this story before. It’s still good. Barbarian Quota: Only via reference to previous Witch World events.
Maureen Birnbaum at the Earth’s Core. George Alec Effinger. Jokey, genderswapped Pelucidar parody. Presumably, this is a sequel to Maureen Birnbaum on Mars, which I haven’t read. (I just researched this after writing the previous sentence. Seems I was basically correct.) The Jewish American Princess shtick is amusing, but the references are dated. Luckily, I’m old enough to appreciate them. This is fluff, fast food. The McRib of S&S. Goes okay with beer, though. Then again, doesn’t everything? Fun stuff if that’s what you’re in the mood for. Barbarian Quota: The only barbarians are the ape-men of the Earth’s core.
Trapped in the Shadowland. Fritz Leiber. The incomparable duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, once again cross paths with the Death of Newhon in this slight tale, more anecdote than story. Barbarian Quota: Fafhrd, of course, qualifies.
The Blacksmith. Raul Garcia Capella. When I first started these anthology posts (still primarily re-reading volumes picked from my shelves) I noted Ray (or Raul) Capella as an unknown. Yet he’s popped up frequently, and for good reason. He’s an excellent writer. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been deprived of some great, never produced Capella works. Blacksmith is a tale of arrogance and comeuppance, virtue and reward. It seems to be an origin tale of a unique S&S hero. I’m curious if any further tales of this new character ever saw print. Barbarian Quota: No barbarian in this one, though we do have a wizard, the eponymous blacksmith, and some sort of quasi-demon from a Valhalla lacking all the upsides. Perhaps he counts.
Demon of the Snows. Lin Carter. At last, a barbarian swordsman. A warrior of the cold north, broadswords strapped to his back, faces peril and mystery. Something like was promised on the cover. How about that? It is Thongor and LIn Carter, so you know what you’re getting. And that’s okay with me. Barbarian Quota: One Conan-clone.
The Dark Mother. Diana L. Paxson. I reviewed this one recently. Barbarian Quota: No barbarians here, except if they might be, metaphorically, the priestesses of the Dark Mother.
Misericorde. Karl Edward Wagner. KEW’s Kane is many things, but a barbarian is not one of them. Kane is, if anything, too civilized. Machiavellian, even. This is a jewel of a Kane story: a dark, vile jewel. If you need Kane encapsulated, here he is. Barbarian Quota: Zip.
The Warrior Race. L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp is reliably entertaining, so I’m always happy to see his name in an anthology. But Warrior Race is a science fiction story, not fantasy — heroic, S&S, epic, or otherwise. Are the Centaurans of the story barbarians? Well, in this historical analogy, yes. Corrupted and assimilated by the civilization they conquer. It’s a fine SF story. But I question it’s inclusion here. Barbarian Quota: See discussion above.
Fredeya. Charles Fontenay. A rather tedious slog through a post-apocalyptic setting to an end that is supposed to be some major surprise, but that is instead glaringly obvious about a third of the way through. It has its moments, and the author clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the setting. But it is undercooked. For example, the mutated monster that shows up out of the blue near the end comes without any set-up or foreshadowing. I’ve no problem with post-apocalyptic S&S (not that there is any sorcery in this) but after the straight up SF of the previous story and the ERB cutesy parody earlier, I”m growing rather disappointed with this supposedly themed S&S anthology. Barbarian Quota: There is a piratical atmosphere at the beginning of the story that was rather promising. I suppose freebooters might be considered as a type of barbarian.
A Logical Conclusion. Poul Anderson. Ahh, there we go. Leave it to Poul Anderson to right this listing ship. A man of our world exchanges minds with a Northern barbarian pirate in a fantasy world. This yarn is written as only Anderson could. A Logical Conclusion deserves recognition as part of the canon of S&S. Can’t recommend this highly enough. Barbarian Quota: You betcha.
The Winged Helmet. Fred Saberhagen. And…we’re back to science fiction. A time travelling Berserker story, to be exact. It’s entertaining enough, if overlong. Saberhagen knows what he’s doing. Still, I don’t think this is what I signed up for. Barbarian Quota: We’ve got a a barbarian in the form of a time-displaced cave-man type. (I think, so anyway. He seems to be a character from a previous story.)
The Changer of Names. Ramsey Campbell. Reviewed earlier. Barbarian Quota: Nope.
The Valley of the Worm. Robert E. Howard. The Ur-barbarian story. Anthologized many times, and for good reason. You all know this one. I need add nothing further. Barbarian Quota: Chockablock.
The Ghastly Pond. Jessica Amanda Salmonson. This is — fine. The setting lacks verisimilitude, like a hastily thrown together D&D campaign. I didn’t quite buy it. But the horror element of the second half add a compelling aspect, sufficient to carry me through. Barbarian Quota: Lacking barbarians, while at the same time portraying barbarity.
Verdict? Ignore the title and you’ve got yourself an excellent anthology. Only one or two didn’t work for me. Get yourself a copy.
And.or get yourself a copy of one of my books. How about this crime/S&S mashup?
Is there a more appropriate book for this year than Boccaccio’s Decameron? Not that I’ve personally holed up in a countryside villa to ride it out. I’m one of those who still goes into the office everyday. But I understand there’s quite a bit of that sort of voluntary seclusion going on. Read even just the first story of The Decameron: duplicity, corruption, malfeasance rewarded. Timely, right? (I figure I can make such a nebulous comment without offending anyone; it’s applicable enough that you can assume I’m referring to the bugaboos of your choice.)
Anyways, I thought I’d toss that out in case you’re looking for a book recommendation. That’s about all I have time to write today. I’m busy. I’m trying to finish the second draft of my third Karl Thorson novel by the end of next week. Then I hope to complete the third draft of my Cesar the Bravo novel by around the New Year. I generally take Sunday off to write this weekly post, but I can’t do it if I’m going to meet my self-imposed deadlines.
Have a good week.
The cover of Flashing Swords #2 promises four original stories. New S&S stories! Of course, since it was published in 1974, only five years after I was born, it turns out only two were new to me. But, I’ll take it.
The Amber Room of Rivendell glowed with light, buzzed with a pleasant undertone of conversation, and echoed with the ringing peal of elvish laughter. The Amber Room was one of Rivendell’s lesser dining halls, usually reserved for intimate meals. This day its rectangular table hosted an irregular assortment of diners. Elrond sat in the position of honor at the head of the table. Arwen sat at his right, a vision in blue and silver. To her right, travel worn but beaming, sat Aragorn. An emissary from Thranduil sat at Elrond’s left, appearing somewhat off balance, if such a thing could be said of an elf. A few more of Elrond’s household filled out the rest of the table’s long sides.
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.
Andrew Offutt’s introduction to Swords Against Darkness IV mentions that some found volume III rather dark. (Looking back on my review of volume III I suppose it was rather dark. But S&S tends to have an element of the horrific. So, no complaints.) Offutt hints that volume IV will be rather more light-hearted and contain some non-traditional stories. Well, let’s see.