May 31, 2020
We are living in interesting times. Whatever your take on current events, however much or little the global turmoil and tumults have affected you personally, it is likely you feel at the least a bit of consternation, perhaps even pique. My day-to-day existence has altered little. I’ve been driving to the office, the same as usual. It is startlingly quiet there, but that doesn’t bother me. And now that I am able to once again go the gym and take my family out to restaurants, my life is largely back to normal. But even so, I experience moments of discontent, a Truman-Show style notion that something is not quite right.
Who wouldn’t like something comforting and familiar in such circumstances? And so, here are my recommendations for Fantasy and/or Sword-and-Sorcery that fits the bill.
If you assumed I’d lead off with The Lord of the Rings, award yourself whatever you deem appropriate. You’re right. Tolkien’s masterpiece is the literary equivalent of comfort food. It is warm, filling, and homey. Just opening up to Chapter One feels like revisiting your childhood bedroom. The existential threat faced is daunting and averting it comes down to a hair-thin margin. It is bitter-sweet in all the right ways. You don’t need me to tell you any of this. So, moving on.
If LOTR is comfort food, then Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is a favorite beverage. You know what I mean: You drop by a tavern for a drink, but you’re not in the mood to try something new. The risk of disliking it is too high and the bartender is busy so you don’t want to bother him for a taste. But you see a favorite beer on tap, so you know you’ll be satisfied. And since we’re talking short stories here, like a beer you can have more than one. If you want only one, then I recommend Thieves House. If you’ve never read any of Leiber’s seminal contribution to the S&S genre, then I’d recommend you start with Ill-Met in Lankhmar, but for succor in turbulent days it may fall somewhat short, given the rather tragic outcome for a couple of the characters.
Some may quibble if I claim that Glen Cook’s Garrett Files novels are S&S. Garrett almost never uses a sword. He’s a portmanteau character: equal parts Archie Goodwin, Phillip Marlowe, and Travis McGee, not Conan. He solves mysteries. That’s a different genre. But the way I see it, S&S has always blended genres. Since I mentioned Conan, consider The God in the Bowl. That’s a bit of a police procedural. Even The Tower of the Elephant starts as a heist story. And Beyond the Black River is essentially an American frontier story. So, I figure Garrett gets a pass. The point is, these novels, like the Nero Wolfe novels from which they are partially inspired, take up a familiar rhythm, with familiar locations, recurrent characters, motifs, and tropes. Reading through them is as comforting as donning a favorite pair of slippers.
The Harold Shea stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt are seldom laugh-out-loud funny. But they maintain a consistent level of tongue-in-cheek drollery. The stakes are real enough for the characters, but they never feel too serious. This creates a constant feeling of good humor for the reader. And what could be more comforting in an era of lockdowns and looting?
These sorts of lists ought to have five, I think. I’ll open up the floor for nominations. What is your go-to comfort work of Fantasy and/or S&S?