Science Fiction has its big three. Most often these are listed as Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. The line up varies, of course. It can’t be objectively determined and prominence waxes and wanes with time. Weird Tales had its own holy trinity: Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith. Three seems to be a magic number. Who, I wonder, would be Fantasy’s big three?
If I were to distill the elements of Swords-and-Sorcery to their essence, what story would I find pooled at the bottom of the alembic?
To answer such a question, I’d first have to gather the elements. It requires a confident man or an arrogant fool to think he knows what those elements are. Let’s take a collective leap and pretend I’m not a fool. Moving forward, let’s see if we can glean the fundamental components of S&S.
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.
A couple of weeks ago I moderated a panel on the essential science fiction writers of the Golden Age. The premise was which writers should someone read if he were interested in acquiring a grounding in sci-fi but possessed either limited time or small inclination to read copious amounts of early twentieth century fiction. Who are the not-to-be-missed highlights? It was an engaging, free-ranging conversation. Many writers were brought up and discussed. The panelists agreed more often than not. I doubt we managed to pare the options down to an easily digestible reading list.
My original concept for the panel included fantasy as well. But, as it was a science-fiction convention, that idea was (rightly) nixed. But I still think it worth discussing. What if you, dear reader, had an interest in fantasy, indeed enjoyed reading the current crop of authors? What if you wanted to learn more of the inspirations guiding your favorite writers and where certain tropes and archetypes originated. But what if, for whatever reason, you didn’t want read a bunch of old stuff? Which authors could you read, at a bare minimum to fill this gap?
I approach this entry with some trepidation. I knew I’d need to write about Robert Ervin Howard at some point. But I’ve been reluctant to do so because, really, what more is there to say about the man? More ink has been spilled critiquing REH than any other Appendix N author save J.R.R. Tolkien. There are dedicated Howard scholars contributing to journals. The late, lamented blog “The Cimmerian” curated years worth of commentary. The annual Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, offers panel discussions. The topic of Robert E. Howard has been covered.
But, I’ve taken on this labor of Appendix N commentary, and by Crom’s beard, I’m going to write about REH. Adding a few more drops of digital ink to the ocean.
I think the pages of Sherlock Holmes pastiche I’ve read equals or surpasses the volume of “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” I have on my shelves. And I’m certain I’ve barely scratched the surface of the short stories, novels, comic books, etc. featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. I’ll be able to skip three of the stories in the anthology of Holmes stories I’m currently reading since I read them already in another anthology I own. Has anyone ever performed a count of non-Canon Sherlock Holmes stories? I imagine the tally would be obsolete by the time it was completed. And the number is even larger if we include anonymous appearances by the great detective, e.g., Roger Zelazny’s “A Night in the Lonesome October.”
It is a rare and wonderful feat for a character to outlive its creator. Few characters capture the imagination of large enough swathes of the reading public to inspire new adventures after the original author dies.
I come to praise L. Sprague de Camp; let others bury him in undeserved, virulent dudgeon.
The man’s fingerprints are all over science fiction and fantasy from the Golden Age of science fiction up until the end of the Twentieth Century. He more than earned his place in Appendix N. He was prolific, fighting in the Isaac Asimov weight category (though, let’s face it, Asimov remains undefeated for sheer volume of publication.) De Camp’s writing was urbane, learned, witty, and full of clever innuendo. I, for one, love it.
I caught a French flick called “Revenge of the Musketeers” the other night. I watch a lot of Netflix late at night while feeding my little bobblehead of a daughter. Some viewing choices are better than others. This one was pretty good. It got me to thinking about Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” and how that tale has enriched the entertainment I enjoy.
“Revenge of the Musketeers” (or “La fille de d’Artagnan”) is a 1994 movie starring Sophie Marceau. Marceau, I believe, was once a Bond girl in one the Brosnan era James Bond outings. If you don’t mind reading subtitles, I recommend checking out “Revenge of the Musketeers.” It is nicely photographed and well-acted, reminiscent (deliberately so, I assume) of the terrific Richard Lester “Musketeer” films. It employs similar styles of humor and the scenes, acting, and fight choreography are evocative of the earlier films. My guess is that the actors quite consciously played their roles as older versions of Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, and Frank Finlay. In fact, in one scene, Ms. Marceau (playing d’Artagnan’s daughter Eloise) wears a dress that appeared to me identical to one worn by Raquel Welch as Constance.
Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont managed a rare feat: they transformed their role-playing game campaign into a series of interesting and readable novels. It’s a trick worthy of remark. Some of the novels Steven Brust and of China Mieville show evidence of a similar exploit of literary legerdemain. But given that most role-playing games are, by nature, a distillation of existing tropes, a deliberate homogenization, it is truly impressive to see something unique emerge, a story that doesn’t appear to be the equivalent of a fourth or fifth generation photocopy.
The seams do on occasion show through in Erikson and Esselmont’s books. While they’ve rebranded the demi-human races as laid down by the Ur-RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, an observant reader can get glimpses of the original product beneath. “Edur” instead of “Eldar” (or elf.) “Trell” instead of “Troll” (or some form of ogre/half-ogre.) The clues are there, though in fairness they’ve rendered such archeology a pointless exercise; their creations are essentially sui generis.
The magical systems are fresh, showing no evidence of derivation from the Vancian system employed by D&D. But at least one character wears his class openly on his sleeve. Karsa is quite clearly Erikson’s effort to explore the Barbarian class as well as taking Robert E. Howard’s ruminations on barbarism versus civilization out for an extended exploration.
The books provide plenty of evidence to refute those who still claim that fantasy is “merely”* escapist fiction, with no greater merit. The books explore philosophy, archaeology, historiography, religion, politics, war, psychology. In fact the very depth, and the fact that the two writers show no hesitation to throw the reader deep into the woods without map or compass, dissuades some readers from tackling the pile of doorstops that comprise the still-ongoing series.
Well, I’m not dissuaded. I may not agree with the Erikson or Esselmont on certain points of politics or the ideal aesthetic of the female figure, but I’m sold on these novels and I’m in for the long haul. In fact, after writing this, I need to return to “Blood & Bones.”
*See J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous remarks on escapism.