Why Another Sword & Sorcery Fantasy Hero?
To every (fantasy) age, its own beliefs and values
What follows is an invitation to those who enjoy sword and sorcery fantasy fiction to consider where the genre is going. This is just my own point of view, it does not represent anyone except myself. I offer it in the hope that others will be prompted to respond, either for or against. It gives a raison d'etre for the Ealdræd stories.
Although fantasy fiction, like any other literature, can engage with the issues and questions that face us in our actual lives, and indeed offer some insight into those issues and questions, I would none the less suggest that the fundamental appeal of fantasy fiction is the desire to escape, in a private and entirely acceptable way, from the banal oppression of the mundane, dispiriting, lacklustre, and disappointing world of so-called real life. Some fantasists may wish to make higher claims for fantasy than this but, to me, literature that offers both enjoyable entertainment and enough insight to give the reader occasional pause for thought is already adequately justified.
Given this basic premise - that fantasy fiction is not limited or constrained by the values that our politicians tell us we should have, by the beliefs indoctrinated in us by our schoolteachers, by the attitudes continually fostered and promoted by the media - it has always been a frustration to me that sword and sorcery fantasy fiction so often appears to lack the courage of its own fictional convictions. For more than two generations, the mainstream of this globally popular and enduring genre of fiction has committed the error of anachronism; that is, they have imposed the beliefs and values of their own contemporary culture on the fantasy societies and characters that they have created.
Rather than using the genre to explore alternative values and beliefs, to imagine quite different perspectives on life, they have assumed and reinfornced the culturally relative world view of their own society on to a suposedly alien context. A conspicuous example in fantasy of this type of anachronism are the radio science-fiction programmes of the 1950s in which the people of the future have jet packs and flying cars (which didn't happen) whilst the gender relations are like those in a Rock Hudson / Doris Day movie. In actuality, it was gender roles that changed massively in the years following the 1950s but this was something that apparently couldn't even be imagined by those radio science-fiction writers in the 50s. Surely fantasy fiction is the last genre of writing that ought to suffer from a failure of imagination. What I wish to argue is that you, reader, will seriously consider the discarding of anachronistic beliefs and values in fantasy fiction; that you will enter with curiosity into an alternative world view that in some respects directly challenges the beliefs and values of your own society.
Maybe you think that what I'm asking for is exactly what sword and sorcery fantasy fiction has always done? Well, yes, sometimes it does. If it never offered an alternative to conformity with the world outside your window I would never have become interested in it, would you? But even the best of it could be much more challenging than it is.
Let’s begin with someone who in many regards deserves credit for escaping the beliefs and values of his own culture in his invention of another age. One of the things that I could never quite reconcile in the Conan stories was the immaculately scrupulous honour of the “barbarians” in Robert Howard’s classic, iconographic fantasy fiction. Not that I’m rejecting the concept of honour, its just that I don’t think a genuine barbarian would share the kind of notion of honour to be found in an Errol Flynn / Maureen O’Hara movie (Against All Flags 1952). He or she might have a code of honour that had much more in common with Genghis Khan. Whilst we are constantly reminded of the barbarian’s closeness to nature (e.g. Conan is incessantly “turning like a wolf at bay” or “moving with the speed of a panther”, etc) he is none the less very much cast in the image of the age-old idea of the noble savage (an idea that extends from the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the Tarzan novels and beyond). His virtue is instantly recognisable to a twentieth century reader. For example, he has a very dainty code of social etiquette where the ladies are concerned for one who is supposedly so much a part of primitive nature. He isn't going to behave like a real barbarian because no one would buy a book called "Conan the Rapist".
As another example, we are told in a story like “The Tower of the Elephant” that the young Conan is a thief. But do we see him burgling the house of a rich merchant? Do we see him picking pockets in the market square? No. His being a thief is simply a pretext for him to raid the Tower of the Elephant and what takes place there has nothing to do with a professional thief plying his immoral trade. In fact, we are not presented with Conan stealing anything that might justify the assertion that he is a thief. Why? Because the hero of a series of tales penned during the 1930s could not be a thief. So, great credit to Howard for pretending that his hero was a thief, but let us not be fooled – we are not seriously presented with a hero who contravenes the accepted notions of morality that were dominant at the time that the stories were written. After all, Howard had to find a publisher for his material and that meant conforming to the social mores of the time.
Not that I’m knocking Mr Robert E Howard. The man deserves his immense reputation. Like so many others, it was the Conan tales (and those unrivalled Frazetta paintings on the paperback covers) that first made me sit up and take notice of sword and sorcery fiction when I was a callow teenager, oh so many long dark years ago. But the stories are slightly spoilt for me by their anachronistic intrusion of twentieth century values upon the Hyborian age.
Having dared to criticise Howard, why should Tolkien be above criticism? Again, let me first acknowledge the greatness of the achievement. Tolkien does something which I prize most highly in fantasy fiction, he creates an entire world in detail. In my view, nothing is more important than this for a fantasy writer. More than that, it is said that his intention in writing the Lord of the Rings was to provide the English with a fictional mythology to bolster their flagging sense of their own ethnic identity; something which, as an Englishman, I would contend is more needed now in the 21st century than at any time in the preceding one and a half millennia (with the possible exception of the Norman Conquest).
Even so, the censorious prudery of the literature of the mid-twentieth century means that it is hard to imagine anyone in the Lord of the Rings realistically having sex, for example. They can parade their great towering romantic loves, certainly, but not the beast with two backs. That would be insufficiently pure, noble and worthy for a fellowship undertaking such a high-minded mission to redeem the world. Again, the beliefs and values of the author at the time of writing detract from the creation of a sense of reality of the fantasy world as another world; as something alien to our own time; as a place quite foreign to, and independent of, the culturally relative society the author happens to be living in at the time of writing.
In our own era this use of painful anachronism is more crudely and crassly obvious than ever before. For example, the misandrist sexism of “political correctness” indulges in the blatantly sexist double standard that whilst female characters must not be deprived of anything that male characters have, at the same time it demands that they must not to be treated with the callous and dismissively brutal disregard with which male characters are treated. So whilst male characters (especially minor male characters like the unnamed enemies defeated in battle) have their limbs hacked off and they suffer all manner of torture and violent death, female characters are protected from such treatment by the gratuitous imposition of 21st century beliefs and values upon entirely fantasy worlds.
As a result, we are presented with the insulting contemporary fantasy icon of the female tough guy who spends the entire film / novel /computer game / whatever, beating the hell out of her male opponents whilst no one is allowed to fight back and break her teeth or shatter her bones because she is a pretty little girly and it is considered wicked for men to hit women. What is the consequence? We get 98lb skinny fashion model females in chain-mail bikinis wielding swords that they wouldn’t really have the strength to lift and defeating whole groups of 220lb muscular male opponents. This is sword and sorcery meets Charlie’s Angels. She is allowed to hit him but he isn’t allowed to hit her back. Besides its insultingly stupid anachronistic values, it is deeply immoral. This grotesquely sexist double standard is entirely in keeping with the beliefs and values of the present “politically correct” culture but it doesn’t belong in the other ages and epochs depicted in fantasy literature. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be any female fantasy heroines. On the contrary. Certainly there can be. I’m arguing that if the fantasy hero/heroine is female, then she should get beaten and brutalised just like all the male heroes do; that male pain and female pain should have sex-equality.
Where then, would I wish to see sword and sorcery fantasy fiction headed in the future?
I would like to take note of what I consider to be a sister/brother genre of entertainment fantasy fiction, the historical novel. Let us first admit that no matter how expertly researched, there is inevitably quite a degree of creative imagining involved in any historical novel, especially those which are set many centuries in the past. A story which takes place during the Mediaeval centuries, for example, will have its characters speaking in modern English rather than the language of the time; it will involve the author in imagining the profound effect of the centrality of religion in the lives of the characters and the absence of science; it will require a leap of imagination in trying to describe what mediaeval warfare would have been like for those engaged in it, etc., etc. Whilst the genres of fantasy and historical fiction are certainly distinct, the line between the two is perhaps not as absolute as some authors might like to maintain.
Now this is the point. Where the really good historical novel scores over so much fantasy fiction is the sense of a well-developed context in which the protagonists reveal their story. Good historical fiction is not only rich in detail about the period in which the story is set – and for richness of period detail, no one can match the wonderful George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” novels (which for my money are the most gorgeously entertaining novels ever written) – but they enter into that period of history on its own terms. That is, they accept that societies in other ages had different beliefs and values to those of the present and they do not seek to impose the beliefs and values of the “politically correct” 20th and 21st centuries upon the past. This should apply to other ages whether they be factual or fictional.
Fantasy fiction should learn from such good examples. If you are a writer creating your own fantasy world, then the narrow culturally-relative beliefs and values of the society that you happen to be living in need not limit your imagination. Rather, recognise that different cultures in different times and places have their own beliefs and values, including the fantastical ones. Write about those. It will be more interesting . . . . and more entertaining . . . . and more liberating . . . .
Author of The Fables of Ealdræd
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Galaxy magazine, November 1953
Weird Tales magazine, May 1934
Conan the Warrior, Robert E Howerd (ed. L Sprague de Camp) , Lancer Books
Red Sonja she-devil with a sword #1, Dynamite Entertainment
Flashman at the Charge, George MacDonald Fraser, Harper Collins