I was introduced to D&D in 1994, during my freshman year of high school.
I had no idea what to expect going in. The sum total of my exposure to D&D up to that point was vague memories of the old cartoon, half-remembered rumors about the Satanic Panic of the 1980's, and multiple viewings of Charles Band's glorious, b-movie masterpiece, The Dungeonmaster.
I knew nothing about the game itself, except for the fact that the DM—a kid from my school named Mark—said it was awesome.
Reader, it was.
The games Mark ran were a glorious, hot-mess mashup of every fantasy trope you could imagine. Shapeshifting humanoid dragon-kin, cribbed from Breath of Fire. Highlander-style immortals. Dhampir characters inspired by Vampire Hunter D. Anything and everything from the Dragonlance novels, including minotaur player characters.
All of it was thrown into a fantasy kitchen sink, stirred together with a +5 Vorpal Sword, and poured over the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, with not one bit of attention given to the published canon.
The house rules were a blend of the BECMI Rules Cyclopedia, AD&D 2nd Edition, and "fuck it, we'll just do whatever we want." And rule of cool always trumped rules as written.
Anyway, part of the reason I've been thinking about those first games at Mark's house is this recent episode of Geek Gab, featuring Cirsova editor P. Alexander, and Appendix N expert Jeffro Johnson.
The entire thing is worth a listen. They touch on several topics, including the gonzo, science fantasy weirdness that was baked into the first edition of AD&D. They also mention the organized "stripping out" of that weirdness, which began with Second Edition.
Simply put, there was a gradual separation of science fiction and fantasy elements in the official product line. Things like crashed space ships, energy weapons, and psionics appeared less frequently in published materials, except in certain "designated" campaign settings like Spelljammer and Dark Sun. AD&D became less about the gonzo, "play anything" ethos, and more about supporting TSR's own branded campaign settings, with a heavy emphasis on Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms.
In other words, AD&D wasn't a tool kit any more. It was a self-feeding mechanism for pushing homogenized, mass-produced fantasy product to the consumers.
That homogenized fantasy product has a perfectly descriptive nickname: Pink Slime Fantasy.
Quoting the above link:
You're a publisher or aspiring author. You've got a market here: a bunch of fantasy nuts who have been so starved of content that they're literally rolling their own, making up these elaborate worlds. You've also got Tolkien as proof of concept: if you can write the perfect book for these people, it'll be an evergreen best seller, ideally three years in a row (because God forbid you write just one novel).
Incidentally, I'm not knocking Pink Slime Fantasy. I remember enjoying the hell out of the Belgariad and the Shannara books, not to mention piles and piles of those Forgotten Realms novels. Hell, I even bought a copy of Goblin Slayer Volume 1 based on P. Alexander's observation that it was pure, in a vacuum, D&D fan fiction.
What's relevant here isn't the quality. What's relevant is the shift that Pink Slime Fantasy caused in the game's inherent assumptions.
While First Edition expected players to mash Jack Vance together with Michel Moorcock and Poul Anderson, Second Edition expected players to re-create and act out the plots of TSR's own in-house fiction line.
That assumption is even more explicit in Fifth Edition. The new Player's Handbook has its own version of Appendix N, one including D&D-branded series like The Legend of Drizzt and the Dragonlance Chronicles.
In other words, the D&D brand has officially begun to eat itself.
Nostalgia aside, that's one of the big reasons I remember those early games at Mark's so fondly. Our bizarre, kitchen-sink approach to fantasy put us in a kind of no-man's land between the pure gonzo of Appendix N, and the corporatized, self-regurgitation of Pink Slime.
That said, we didn't entirely escape the Pink Slime influence.
Aside from the inclusion of regurgitated fantasy fluff like Dragonlance, Mark's games never really contained any science fiction elements. That artificial split between the genres might as well have been law in our group, and for the longest time, I just assumed that's what D&D was. It wasn't until decades later—when I discovered the OSR and Appendix N—that I realized just how gonzo the game used to be.
Incidentally, part of the reason I gravitated towards anime and manga at the time is that as a medium, it largely rejected that artificial split. I found plenty of stories that scratched my science fantasy itch among those Japanese imports, since American publishers wouldn't give them to me.
Listening to that Geek Gab podcast, I think those games at Mark's represent an interesting data point. If there was a transitional period between the inspired weirdness of First Edition, and the self-perpetuating Pink Slime of the later editions, those games captured it.
Makes me wonder how many other groups were like mine.
Anyway, I want to close this one out on a slightly more personal note:
Mark and I drifted our separate ways after high school. We haven't spoken in years. But I'll always thank him for introducing me to a hobby that gave me so many hours of good times with friends. No small thing, for a kid as awkward and socially maladjusted as I was.
So if you're out there reading this, man... thanks. Friends were hard for me to come by in those days. You always tried to be a good one. And you introduced me to many more.
Welcome back, Wastelanders.
With the recent passing of legendary actor Rutger Hauer, I thought it only fitting to revisit his single greatest contribution to the post apocalyptic genre.
I'm talking about the largely forgotten 1989 cult classic, The Blood of Heroes, aka Salute of the Jugger.
The film opens on a desert vista, with a rough-looking group of wanderers approaching a small town. These wanderers are Juggers, players of a savage sport known only as The Game. At their head is veteran player Sallow (Hauer).
Excitement in the village mounts at the strangers' arrival. The local team of Juggers quickly assembles, prepared to play off against the newcomers. The rest of the villagers gather to watch. Among the observers is Kidda (Joan Chen), a talented and eager young player who apparently serves as part of her home team's second string.
The preparations for The Game commence. The players suit up, putting on armor and setting out the dog's skull that serves as the game's "ball." The locals set the goal stakes in the ground. They gather piles of counting stones to keep time with.
Once The Game begins, it's raw and brutal. Pretty soon one of the local players is broken and out of commission, and a player on Sallow's team named Dog Boy is playing with a badly injured leg.
Also in the exchange, Sallow's headgear is knocked off, exposing the tattoo on his face. The crowd is stunned. Sallow is (or was) a member of The League, the elite of the elite, the Juggers that play in the Nine Cities. What brought him out to the sparsely populated Dog Towns, they can only speculate.
With one of her home team's players out of The Game, it's Kidda's turn to shine. She suits up, taking her position as the team's "Quik." Her direct opposite is the injured Dog Boy. She begins taunting him before the round begins, saying she's going to break that leg.
The gong sounds, and immediately Kidda and Dog Boy are in a knock-down, drag-out fight over the skull. Kidda prevails, making good on her promise to break his leg. Then she takes the dog skull and makes a run for the goal stake. She nearly makes it, only getting stopped when Gar (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Sallow team up on her. Dog Boy gathers the skull, and drags himself to the home team's goal stake to win the game.
A night of drunken celebration later, and the Juggers are on the move again. Except now they have a follower.
Kidda, having tasted greatness against the traveling Juggers, decides she wants to be as good as the League Players. She follows at a distance, only approaching when they pause to let the limping Dog Boy catch up.
Kidda offers to take his place on the team, saying she's fast, she'll make a good Quik. Sallow rejects her at first. He says that Dog Boy will heal up soon enough, and tries to send her home. But she's still following a day later when Dog Boy admits he can't stand up anymore. The Juggers offer to bring him along, anyway, but he has too much pride to accept.
"No one carries the Dog Boy," he tells them. Respecting his wish, they leave him propped against a tree in the desert, with only his share of the food and water.
The next thing we see is an extended practice/tryout session, as Kidda works to earn her place. She gets knocked down. But she keeps getting up and trying harder. Sallow, deciding she's good enough to stay on, teams her up with the chain-wielding Gar, the team's "Giffer."
Soon the wandering Juggers enter another Dog Town, a village bigger than Kidda's. The ritual from before repeats as both teams square up and gear up. Then The Game begins, and Kidda has a chance to prove she's been paying attention.
Locked in another knock-down, drag-out brawl with the opposing team's Quik, Kidda is getting the worst of it, until she manages to climb onto her opponents back. She bites his ear off, forcing him to drop the dog skull. She scoops it up and makes a run for the goal stake. The team swoops in to protect her, and Kidda scores a victory.
Later, as the night's drunken celebration wears on, the team's surgeon Ghandi attends to Kidda's injuries. As he does, she asks about Sallow. How does a League Player end up out in the Dog Towns?
Ghandi begins to tell her the story: Sallow was apparently a rising star in the League, but young and foolish. He openly flaunted an illicit love affair with a lord's woman, which earned him an expulsion from the League and an exile from the Red City.
The story is interrupted by a drunk Sallow, who offers Kidda backhanded comments, criticizing her play style and saying she needs more practice, before he stumbles out into the night with a woman on each arm. This incenses Kidda, but Ghandi points out that he was actually complimenting her.
"He thinks you're very good," Ghandi says.
"That's not what he said," Kidda replies.
"That's what he meant."
Their talk then turns to the League, the Nine Cities, and the luxuries found there. Kidda's imagination—and her ambition—are stirred.
The film follows this with a montage of Dog Towns, matches, and drunken nights. The team wins every game they play, but the victories are always hard fought. Through all of it, Kidda is getting closer to the team, and especially to Gar, who she takes as a lover.
One night, talking to Sallow after a Game, Kidda observes that the boys in the Dog Town don't look like they've eaten in six weeks. He remarks that they probably haven't.
"We live good, compared to most," he says.
Kidda, though, uses this talk of hunger to pry for details about the League, and the Cities. She asks if they're really as good as everyone says, and if the stories about the luxuries Ghandi told her about are true. He says they are.
The Juggers continue to move further north, and they continue to play and win. But the matches get tougher the farther they go, and eventually Sallow gets blinded in one eye. As Ghandi patches him up, the surgeon remarks that maybe its time for them to turn south again, to head back to the smaller Dog Towns.
The following day, as they're walking to their next destination, Kidda asks why they don't just head for the Red City. She's been talking with the others. She knows now that any team can issue a challenge to the League. That's how Sallow got noticed and accepted.
Sallow refuses, saying they wouldn't accept anyway. But that night in camp, he sits awake, thinking. Kidda's hunger and drive for glory remind him of who he used to be, and what he used to stand for.
Come morning, he's making his way to the Red City. After some debate, the rest of the team follows.
A while later, the Juggers join a procession of refugees and travelers outside a lonely, isolated elevator shaft. They're all waiting to be allowed entrance down into the city. While they wait, Gar asks Sallow if it's true that no League team has ever lost a Challenge. He asks sallow if he thinks they can do it.
"Win," Gar repeats. "Or at least go 100 stones three times. That would be just as good, 300 stones. Tie."
Sallow says nothing, and Gar asks how many stones Sallow went back when he made his Challenge.
Sallow tells him they only went 26.
Gar is shocked. He asks how Sallow could possibly have been allowed into the League after a game like that. Sallow flashes a haunted smile.
"We were the only ones to ever last that long," he says. "Two of us were still standing. It was a good Game. We played very well."
Eventually, the elevator shaft opens, and the Juggers are permitted to take the long ride down into the underground City. Once there, the team goes to get food from a street vendor, while Sallow and Kidda go to watch one of the League Games.
At the sight of it, though, Kidda begins to have second thoughts. The Game is faster, more intense, and more brutal here than she ever imagined.
After the Game, Sallow and Kidda watch the winning players leave the field. The city's lords and ladies stand by the exit ramp, greeting and fawning over the victorious Juggers. While they do, Sallow's gaze drifts to one lord in particular. From there, it rests longingly on the lady by his side. They're obviously the ones from Ghandi's story, the object of Sallow's illicit affair and the lord behind his subsequent exile.
Kidda notices, but she makes no comment, allowing him his private memories.
Then Sallow spots an old colleague of his, a League Jugger named Gonzo. He approaches Gonzo at the end of the ramp, far from the city's elites. He asks about a Challenge match. But Gonzo says the League will never accept. At least not with Sallow on the team.
As they're leaving, Kidda tells Sallow she doesn't want to go through with the Challenge anymore. He asks if she's scared. She says yes. She says she doesn't want the League's attention anymore.
Sallow tells her he wants it.
In the very next scene, the Juggers appear before the League officials. For consideration, they present all the dog skulls they've collected as trophies in their wanderings. While they wait for the officials to give word, Sallow tries to stand near the back, unobtrusively. But the same lord from earlier, the one behind his exile, recognizes him. He wanders from official to official, whispering in their ears.
At last, the chairman announces they will deliberate before making a decision.
At a dining hall, the team sits around, dejected. They suspect that in not being accepted right away, they've been turned down. They saw how the officials looked at Sallow. They know if they're denied, it's his fault, an opinion Gar states out loud.
Both Sallow and Kidda leave to wander the city, eventually winding up in the Red City's ghetto. As Sallow offers to pay for two beds in a flop house, Kidda tells him to just pay for one.
As Kidda and Sallow spend the night together, the action cuts to Gonzo. The League Jugger is dressed in silk finery, enjoying a dinner party thrown by the city's elite. There, he's approached by the same lord seen whispering to the League officials earlier, Lord Vile.
Vile tells Gonzo that at his personal insistence, the challenge from Sallow's team has been accepted. Also at his request, Gonzo will be playing against them. He then instructs Gonzo to put out Sallow's good eye and break his legs when The Game commences.
Gonzo is practically dumbstruck. "You want me to damage him on purpose?"
Vile gives him a cold look. "I insist."
The next day is the day of the Challenge. In the audience stands above the arena, Lord Vile arrives with his lover in tow. Without telling her, he's brought her here to watch as Sallow is broken and humiliated.
On the arena floor, Kidda eyes the opposing Juggers. She talks to Sallow about her fears. She says she was never afraid in any of the other games, because before now, she never imagined it was possible to lose. She always expected to win.
"Then win," Sallow tells her.
On the opposing side, Gonzo tells one of his teammates to pin Sallow and hold him for the remainder of the round. Despite Vile's instructions, he intends to protect his old friend by any means possible.
The Game begins. In short order, Sallow is pinned. One of his other team members, Big Cimber, is down and badly injured.
But Kidda manages to keep the opposing team's Quik from making a goal, running out all 100 counting stones in the first round. It's an unprecedented achievement, and news of it spreads around the Red City as spectators flock to the arena.
During the intermission, team surgeon Ghandi is forced to take Big Cimber's place. The Red City's team gets fresh replacements. Lord Vile berates Gonzo for failing to carry out his instructions.
The second round begins. Sallow takes Gonzo head on. Kidda battles her rival tooth and nail. It's all-in for the entire team, and soon Sallow gains the upper hand on his old friend. He pummels the League Jugger into submission, then he slowly removes his helmet and locks eyes with Lord Vile.
At the same time, Kidda wrests the dog skull from the opposing team's Quik, beating him into unconsciousness. But Sallow stops her from running to the goal stake. He gestures around the arena. To a man, their team has the Red City Juggers down, pinned and defeated.
There's no one left to oppose her.
"Walk," Sallow tells her. "Slowly."
To the sounds of the roaring crowd, Kidda triumphantly strides up to the stake, placing the skull on it. For the first time in the history of The Game, a challenger has beaten a League team.
Plenty of it, and hallelujah to the b-movie gods for that!
While the bloodshed is entirely confined to the playing fields of The Game, a significant amount of the film's runtime is dedicated to it. We get bone-crunching, eye-gouging, skin-ripping action every time the Juggers take the field.
When it comes to violence, The Blood of Heroes lives up to its title.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Probably one of the most restrained cases in the entire genre. Arguably, it's also one of the best.
A lesser film would have labored to show the Juggers wandering past the blasted out remains of a city. But The Blood of Heroes doesn't go for such an easy or extraneous shot. Instead, it hints at the ruined state of things by carefully selecting the pieces of the old world the wandering Juggers carry with them.
Ghandi lugs around an old dresser full of his medical supplies, wearing it like an oversized backpack. The Juggers' armor is piecemeal, with most of it being made of old tires or chains.
But the single most striking example is the chess set made of sockets. It's a wonderfully understated piece of world-building, one almost bordering on genius: the competitive, tactically-minded Juggers finding a use they understand for an old-world artifact they don't comprehend the original purpose of.
Is it as spectacular or visually stunning as a shattered Statue of Liberty?
But it brings the world of the film to life in a way that no amount of crumbling landmarks in the background ever could.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
The Red City is an underground hellhole where the aristocracy lives in luxury, the poor live in squalor, and the Juggers fight to entertain the masses.
Sure, it's a fairly standard set-up. But with the story's tight focus on the Juggers themselves—and especially on the parallel character arcs of Kidda and Sallow—the film really doesn't need to stretch here.
Less is sometimes more, and The Blood of Heroes gives us just enough to keep things moving.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
With apologies to Tina Turner and her Thunderdome, The Game featured in The Blood of Heroes is the greatest example of this trope in the entire genre.
It's basically a heavily armed variant of football, where the goal is to put a dog's skull on the opposing team's spike. Time is divided into three rounds, and kept by throwing piles of 100 stones at a metal gong. When the pile runs out, the round ends. One goal is all it takes to win.
Simple enough. But there's a hidden complexity beneath the surface. Each of the five named player positions has a fairly a defined role. Only the Quik gets to handle the dog skull. The chain-wielding Griffer acts as the Quik's blocker and backup. The Slash appears to be the offensive line, with the Back-Charge, and the Drive serving as the defense.
Once the game is on, anything goes, with biting, gouging, and leg-breaking all deemed acceptable moves. Sallow ends up blind in one eye. Dog Boy ends up crippled and left for dead.
But despite the game's brutality, there's a sense of honor and fair-play surrounding it. Gonzo says it best, when defying Lord Vile's instructions to intentionally injure Sallow on the field.
"I've broken Juggers in half, smashed their bones, and left the ground behind me wet with their brains. I'd do anything to win. But I'd never hurt a soul for any reason but to put a dog's skull on a stake. And I never will."
Barbarian Hordes -
None, surprisingly enough. That said, The Blood of Heroes is the rare example of an apocalyptic movie that doesn't need them.
Aside from the Juggers themselves, nothing in the film's world building hints at any intertribal or inter-village rivalries. We see no war-bands, no weapons, and no guards or sentries of any kind, other than those at the Red City. Warfare is never even mentioned outside the pre-title card.
The assumption we're left with is that by some unspoken tradition, all war and conflict have been replaced by The Game.
It's a conceit that 100% works in the context of the story. One the movie pulls off by presenting it matter-of-factly, along with the rest of its premise.
Badass Warrior Women -
While Anna Katarina's battle scarred, boisterous, and fearless Big Cimber certainly deserves a nod, The Blood of Heroes' Badass Warrior Woman MVP is undoubtedly Kidda.
From the first frame she appears in, Kidda has the eye of the tiger. She makes good on her threat to break Dog Boy's leg in her initial game. In her first match as a member of Sallow's team, she bites the opposing Quik's ear off. She battles tooth and nail to help drive her team to victory after victory, culminating in the climactic Challenge match in the Red City.
Sure, Kidda might be small. But she's as tough as they come, and the movie forces her to prove it time and again.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
None to speak of. Gonzo is probably the closest we get, but that's stretching the definition past its useful limits.
In fact, I'm only bringing him up here because of what he represents in the story.
While most apocalyptic films use the grotesque and the freakish as shorthand for the forces trying to tear down civilization, The Blood of Heroes does the reverse. Gonzo is actually this civilization's representative: an abnormally large Jugger with an exposed steel plate in his head. He's what Sallow could have been if he'd remained in the Red City, and an illustration of the "good life" Sallow was exiled from.
It's an interesting visual choice, especially when coupled with the almost Dantean elevator ride down into the Red City.
For one thing, it underscores that Sallow's exile may not have been an entirely bad thing. We see the Red City, the aristocracy, and the League, and we come away with the conclusion he was better off in the Dog Towns.
Sallow descends into a metaphorical hell in search of his redemption. Keeping with the Dantean metaphor, the Red City is Inferno rather than Paradiso. And Gonzo is one of its bloated, grinning devils.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out about The Blood of Heroes is how flat-out brilliant the concept is. It's a post-apocalyptic sports movie, equal parts Rocky and The Road Warrior. And while the set-up has the potential to be gimmicky, Writer/Director David Webb Peoples uses it to break new ground in the genre.
Where most apocalyptic stories feature characters focused on survival, The Blood of Heroes instead gives us characters primarily concerned with honor. That's a fresh enough take to be noteworthy on its own. But what's truly fascinating about that choice is what it implies about the movie's setting.
The Mad Max films and their imitators mostly portray a world falling into savagery. Bands of lawless nomads rape, murder, and pillage their way across the wastes in an endless struggle for limited resources. But The Blood of Heroes shows a world where the pendulum is just beginning to swing the other way, a world taking its very first steps away from barbarism. The celebrity status of the Juggers, the reverence everyone holds for The Game, and the unspoken but pointed absence of any other kind of violence all hint at a new and emerging order, an infant civilization crawling out of the ruins of the old.
It's the kind of story that rarely—if ever—gets told in this genre.
The second thing that needs to be said about The Blood of Heroes is that in terms of pure story, it's flawlessly constructed.
By maintaining a tight focus on the unknown but ambitious Kidda and the disgraced veteran Sallow, it seamlessly blends two opposite—but not opposed—character arcs, creating a larger and more powerful story in the process.
The film's biggest strength is the way it leverages the main characters' motivations. Kidda's hunger for glory is played perfectly against Sallow's desire for redemption. Most importantly, it avoids the easy trap of dropping them into a traditional Mentor/Pupil relationship, opting for a more nuanced approach.
While Kidda learns the ropes of The Game from Sallow, the aging Jugger sees a reflection of his own lost, youthful enthusiasm in her. It sparks a deep desire to go back and right a wrong committed against his pride.
By act three, both characters have a powerful, consuming need to play in the Red City. The Challenge match is more than just another Game to either of them. It's everything. Win or lose, they'll go down swinging.
And damn if we're not on the edges of our seats the entire time.
Ultimately, The Blood of Heroes is a film is about hope and heroism in a brutal, unforgiving world. Victories are short and fleeting, and they only happen when you make them happen.
But when they do, they're stuff of legends.
The Rad Rating:
The Blood of Heroes comes within reaching distance of the coveted Five Rad rating, but it falls just short of apocalyptic perfection.
The pace never flags for an instant. The action moves along smoothly without feeling rushed. The characters have ample time to grow and breathe. The film knows which moments are important to show us in full, and which ones can safely be summarized in an action montage.
Above all, The Blood of Heroes doesn't engage in hand-holding. It presents its characters and its world matter-of-factly. It trusts its audience enough not to pause and point out the obvious, allowing us to gather everything from the subtext, the dialogue, and the art direction.
Honestly, the film's only real flaws are the relatively wooden performances from the supporting cast, and its somewhat uninspired cinematography. Neither are grievous sins. But they're just glaring enough to prevent me from awarding a full Five Rads.
That said, The Blood of Heroes is a criminally underrated masterpiece of post apocalyptica. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Mad Max and The Road Warrior when discussing the genre's all-time classics.
Until next time, Wastelanders!
Unsurprisingly, the debate concerning gender roles in Sword and Sorcery rages on...
Morgan Holmes' latest article on the subject offers a compelling look at the raw numbers, in addition to some more anecdotes and observations about the shifts that occurred in the publishing industry. If you've been following the argument with any interest, I highly recommend it.
Anyway, in a comment below the article on social media, Jason Ray Carney made the following statement:
"It seems you’re making incompatible claims in order to strategically adapt to changing rhetorical needs (the hallmark of tendentiousness). In the past you claimed that epic poetry endures and appeals widely because it manifests something like universal, anthroprological insights and lessons about being a human male; now, when that same appeal to universality is deployed against you, the spirit moves you and you become cultural relativists. Where was this enlightened, relativistic view of culture when you were discussing masculinity and epic poetry? Can’t you see what you’re doing?"
To clarify, Carney is referring to a comment I made some weeks back under a separate thread, where I drew comparisons between the Men's Adventure genre, Sword and Sorcery, and the heroic tradition exemplified by epic poems like Beowulf and The Iliad.
I responded (briefly) in the thread, but I wanted to organize and expand my thoughts on that comparison here. What follows is likely my last word on the subject for now, a sort of "closing argument" from Brain Leakage.
The fact is, I've only encountered other people reading The Iliad in two places.
The first one was in the classroom, where it was assigned reading. The guided discussion there hewed fairly close to what Jason Ray Carney talks about when he mentions our "gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against (and inevitable defeat by) time." A major topic of the discussion was mortality, and the finite nature of life.
The second place was in the Marine Corps, where several of my buddies passed a copy around the barracks. We ended up discussing it late nights over beers, while cleaning weapons at the armory, and while hanging out around the smoke pit.
The subject of those talks?
The courage of Hector, standing alone before the walls of Troy. How that courage momentarily broke when he was faced with the wrath of Achilles. How he found it again, to stand and face his own death. Achilles' desecration of Hector. His eventual remorse and mercy towards the grieving Priam.
In short, we were discussing what warrior virtues were and weren't modeled by the characters. Granted, we used more f-bombs and euphemisms for female anatomy than most scholarly works on the subject do.
But those raw, profane, and—above all--sincere discussions by a bunch of young men in the barracks had something those classroom sessions lacked.
We were engaging with the story in its natural habitat.
You see, tales like The Iliad and Beowulf weren't born in the classroom or the lecture hall. They weren't even born in the grand auditoriums of the classical world.
They were born by the fireside.
Long before these stories were ever written down, they were oral tales told to young warriors and would-be warriors, modeling idealized warrior behavior. Songs of great men to inspire and instruct the neophytes, as they sharpened their spears for the coming battle.
Glory and immortality went to those who displayed strength and bravery. Dying a glorious death was better than running away. Honor meant loyalty to your king, loyalty to your home, and loyalty to your brothers.
Simple lessons, but timeless ones. And still applicable to modern warriors.
Which, of course, raises the question: what about warrior behavior is distinctly masculine? Aren't idealized warrior traits as "gender neutral" as Jason Ray Carney's "all-too-human struggle against (...) time?"
No, they're not.
Historically, men have been expected to serve and perform as warriors in a way (and on a scale) that women simply haven't. Yes, there have been examples of women warriors throughout history. Nancy Wake and Leigh Ann Hester spring immediately to mind.
But no matter how many Nancy Wakes or Leigh Ann Hesters a society produces, its women as a whole will never be judged by their ability or failure to perform as warriors.
But its men will be.
Strength, fighting prowess, and physical courage aren't considered masculine traits because only men can display them. They're considered masculine traits because only men are ever judged deficient for lacking them.
And sure, you can say that's an outdated definition of masculinity. You can call it backwards, sexist, regressive, or whatever other word you want to throw at it. You can even call it "toxic," if you want to use the fashionable term.
Hell, you might even be right.
But those young men huddled around that Bronze Age fire? The ones listening to tales of Achilles to bolster their courage? I don't think they'd agree. Neither would those foul-mouthed young Marines, discussing the same stories almost 3000 years later.
I'm going to close with a quote from an article I wrote for DMR Books back in January:
"Critic Damon Knight once made the half-assed assertion that 'the human race has never produced and never could produce such a man' as Howard's Conan. I say anybody who believes that has obviously never heard of Arminius, Miyamoto Musashi, or Audie Murphy.
The fact is, there's a damn good reason so much of storytelling throughout human history has focused on men like Achilles, Hector, and Brian Boru. A society with a heroic tradition is a society that produces men capable of heroic acts. There's a primal, almost intrinsic need for these stories.
It's a need that few writers understood as well as Robert E. Howard."
So my most recent post created a little bit of a stir.
In case you missed it, I joined in on a debate between masculine culture writer Jared Trueheart, pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes, and scholar Jason Ray Carney. I agreed with Jared and Morgan that sword and sorcery is a subset of the venerable Men's Adventure genre, and that it serves much the same purpose: delivering thills and chills to its primarily male audience.
To reiterate and clarify my position a little, I think that--like the post apocalyptic genre—S&S can do more, and can speak to universal human truths. But it absolutely must function as an exciting, thrilling S&S story first. Otherwise, its just an essay masquerading as a S&S tale.
Carney disagrees. He feels the primary purpose of the genre is to do more, and speak to those universal human truths.
One person who agrees with him was respected S&S writer David C. Smith.
On the incredibly off chance you're following this debate but are unfamiliar with him, Smith authored and co-authored several Robert E. Howard pastiches, including the six-volume Red Sonja series. He also created the well-regarded Oron series.
In a lengthy comment on my post, Smith offered insight into the publishing industry of the 1980's, shifting markets, and the work of writers intentionally pushing the genre's boundaries.
Despite Smith coming down against my position, I don't see that many of his observations actually refute it. In fact, Smith's point about "masculine-oriented S&S" gradually giving way to epic fantasy and YA fiction just reinforces the idea of the genre being primarily written for and marketed to men.
But his main argument—one contradicting the point referenced above—is that nobody is trying to get rid of the old-school masculine fiction. In his own words:
"And why be so threatened by an intellectual such as Jason Carney who wishes to discuss the gender boundaries of a genre when such new fiction is included with, but does not replace, the old-school masculine fiction?"
"No one wants to take away the 'visceral' fiction, as Daniel Davis calls it."
"Why are you so hung up on this one specific image of masculinity? Would you prefer to keep all of the bookstore racks as they were in 1981? Can't you just relax and enjoy the wealth of masculine fiction that continues to be available? It's a fair question."
Leaving aside his attempt to frame me as somehow "threatened" by an opinion I simply voiced a disagreement with, Smith's right.
It is a fair question.
I just wonder if before he asked it, he'd heard the news that scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge is shaking up the iconic—and inarguably masculine—James Bond franchise by replacing 007 with a new female agent.
Quoting the article:
"Bond, of course, is sexually attracted to the new female 007 and tries his usual seduction tricks, but is baffled when they don't work on a brilliant, young black woman who basically rolls her eyes at him and has no interest in jumping into his bed. Well, certainly not at the beginning."
"This is a Bond for the modern era who will appeal to a younger generation while sticking true to what we all expect in a Bond film,' the source added. 'There are spectacular chase sequences and fights, and Bond is still Bond but he's having to learn to deal with the world of #MeToo."
"Waller-Bridge, who wrote the BBC comedy Fleabag and the female-led thriller Killing Eve, was recruited to ensure the 57-year-old franchise moved with the times. She said: 'There's been a lot of talk about whether or not Bond is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women. I think that's b******s. I think he's absolutely relevant now. [The franchise] has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn't have to. He needs to be true to his character.'"
Reducing the cool, suave, and hyper-competent Bond to a man "baffled" by rejection? Replacing him with a brilliant young woman who simply rolls her eyes at him and displays no interest in jumping into his bed? Forcing him to confront his history of sexual harassment?
With apologies to Mr. Smith, that sounds an awful lot like "replacing the old-school masculine fiction" to me.
Ms. Waller-Bridge's comment is the one I find the most illuminating. In other words, she's saying Bond can be "true to his character," provided the movie takes pains to portray him as backwards and wrong.
Which brings me back to a point I made near the beginning of last week's post. Genre fiction doesn't have to apologize for what it is, or what audience it's trying to court. That's true whether we're talking about a suave secret agent, a savage barbarian, or a certain red haired she devil in a chainmail bikini.
Turning Bond into an apologetic, baffled parody of himself in hopes of pulling in a broader audience isn't going to work.
For starters, we've seen it already. And with respect to Ms. Waller-Bridge, it was funnier when Mike Meyers did it.
Here's a quick question for all you younger readers out there. And by "younger," I mean anyone under 40.
Do you remember the Men's Adventure genre?
You know. Stories about tough guys doing tough guy things. Mack Bolan. The Executioner. Phoenix Force. William W. Johnstone's post apocalyptic Ashes series. Or his amazing standalone adventure, The Last of the Dog Team.
They always featured their alpha male heroes in exotic locations, getting into fist fights, knife fights, and gun fights. The women were always fast and dangerous. The bad guys were always powerful and ruthless. The covers usually depicted some hard case with a gun, striking a tough guy pose with a scantily clad woman nearby. Maybe she had a gun of her own, watching his six. Maybe she was just clutched onto the hero, begging his protection.
Politically incorrect? Maybe. But so what?
As anyone who's been following my recent post apocalyptic reviews can attest, I'm a believer that escapist entertainment doesn't have to make any apologies for what it is, or for what audience its trying to court.
One critic who shares that opinion is pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes. In this interview with Legends of Men, he rightly points out that the sword and sorcery genre is a subset of Men's Adventure fiction, and that it's aimed primarily at an audience of young men.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan's opinion ruffled some feathers.
This lengthy response to Morgan's interview by scholar Jason Ray Carney makes the case that sword and sorcery is primarily a gender neutral genre, less concerned with action, adventure, and alpha-male archetypes than with depicting human frailty in the face of natural forces. It also contains this doozy of a quote:
"Gender aside, sword and sorcery dramatizes our gender-neutral, all-too-human fight against (and inevitable defeat by) time."
With all due respect to Mr. Carney, I couldn't come up with a less-exciting description for the sword and sorcery genre if you held a fucking gun to my head.
To give him some credit, Carney isn't entirely wrong. Sword and sorcery has always had a strong element of cosmic horror to it, and man's futile struggle against the universe—and time—is a big part of that.
But let's be real, folks.
Nobody is reading a story like Robert E. Howard's "The Queen of the Black Coast" because it "dramatizes our gender neutral, all-too-human fight against... time." We're reading it to see Conan get hot and heavy with Belit, raid and plunder the Black Coast as her pirate king, and finally take bloody vengeance on the unholy creatures that killed her.
We're reading it for the fantastic settings and the visceral action. We're reading it to vicariously experience thrills we can't in our day-to-day lives.
What's more, the people writing and marketing these stories understood that. Howard deliberately wrote scenes of scantily clad women in peril, knowing it would ensure a lurid cover illustrated by Weird Tales great, Margaret Brundage.
Sex and action are big sells, folks. They always have been. They always will be. And their expression is almost never "gender neutral."
Don't believe me? Check your grandmother's garage. You'll probably find a giant box of paperbacks in there, several of them featuring a shirtless Fabio on the cover as he passionately embraces the heroine.
I suppose if I tried, I could write an essay arguing that those books really aren't aimed at women at all, and in fact dramatize our gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against loneliness. But nobody would buy that argument. Least of all not a bunch of lifelong romance novel fans.
I don't read sword and sorcery for what it has to say about my own crushing and inevitable defeat by the marches of time. I read it to experience the hot-blooded action of Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast," the weird and tantalizing thrills of Fritz Leiber's "While the Sea King's Away," or the lust-and-honor driven vengeance of Michael Moorcock's "The Dreaming City."
In other words, I read it to get the same thrills I get from the Men's Adventure genre, with the added layer of supernatural or cosmic horror on top. And I'd bet good money I'm not alone.
But then, according to Carney, I'm probably missing the point.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.