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."
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.
Sword an sorcery is a genre that's devilishly hard to define. Ask ten people to lay out their personal guidelines for what is and isn't S&S, and you're likely to get twelve different answers.
Examples are easier to come up with, if somewhat less helpful. And like definitions, you're rarely going to get many people that agree. Sure, some examples are more-or less a given. Robert E. Howard's Conan. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Michael Moorcock's Elric. But disagreement tends to crop up when people throw up examples outside that established core.
In an old SF Signal Mind Meld, several writers were asked to define what "sword and sorcery" meant to them. Answers were, predictably, all over the board, most of them boiling down to lists of common tropes. But the first answer came from Michael Moorcock himself, and it touched on something elemental:
Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu.
Folks, that quote may be the closest thing this genre has to a Rosetta Stone. It explains why so many of the "borderline" examples people disagree about feel wrong to those well-read in the genre, even if they seem to contain most of the tropes.
First, re-read Moorcock's statement. Notice the order he puts the two components in. It's no accident that "old fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama" gets precedent. The story has to function purely (or almost purely) in those terms, absent any fantastical element.
Conan sneaking into the Tower of the Elephant. Elric of Melniboné leading a pirate fleet against the impregnable port of Imrryr. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser running headlong through the labyrinthine halls of the Thieves' House, one step ahead of their murderous pursuers.
Any of those moments could be dropped into a historical adventure story, while retaining 100% of its excitement and impact. They speak to something primal in the reader, something that exists independent of the story's magical elements: Courage in the face of certain death. Wit and steel against overwhelming odds. The chase. The hunt.
Next, notice Moorcock's carefully chosen word, supernatural. There's a reason he didn't say "cloak and dagger fiction with magic." Or "sword and sandal drama with elves and dwarves."
Supernatural implies the weird, the unknown, and the dangerous. Supernatural is the fantastic. But it is the unfamiliar fantastic.
In sword and sorcery, magic is rare and terrifying. Monsters are a violation of the natural order. Dwarves and elves, if present, aren't simply another culture in a fantasy melting-pot world. They're a freak survival of some ancient and forgotten age, like Howard's stooped, serpent-like "Worms of the Earth." Or Moorcock's vaguely etherial, Chaos-bound Melnibonéans.
What I like about Moorcock's definition is that it's not just descriptive. At the risk of paraphrasing Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moorcock's definition doesn't just describe what a sword and sorcery story is. If it did, it wouldn't be much more than a genre dowsing rod.
Rather, Moorcock's definition describes what a sword and sorcery story needs. It can be a map for building one from the ground up.
Sword and sorcery 101. Start with historical adventure. Add the supernatural. It's as simple (and as complex) as that.
Since its publication, much has been made of the connection between Schuyler Hernstrom's new post apocalyptic sci-fi novella and Ursula Le Guin's Hugo-winning short, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'll touch on that connection in a bit, but if you're still on the fence about reading this, let me help you out.
Do you like barbarians? How about motorcycles? Settings that feel like a combination of Vance's Dying Earth and Mad Max? Enjoy witty banter between two likable heroes? Do you like TALKING MONKEYS?
Then stop reading this review right now. Go to Amazon immediately, and buy a copy of "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City."
If I could describe this book using only one sentence, it's like somebody spilled Jack Daniels on a stack of old Heavy Metal magazines with Motorhead blaring in the background. It's random pages from Gary Gygax's Appendix N, screamed out loud over the analog hiss of a bootleg Manowar tape. It's D20s rolling across the cover of the Player's Handbook, with a blacklight illuminating the Led Zeppelin poster on the wall and Black Sabbath's Sabotage playing on the hi-fi stereo.
It's the sort of gonzo, kitchen sink science-fantasy mashup that made old school D&D so balls-to-the-wall awesome.
Bottom line, this story flat-out fucking rocks.
And if none of that convinces you to buy this book, then gentle reader, I don't think I can help you.
Like all of Hernstrom's work so far, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is actually easy to summarize. Northern barbarian Mortu and his companion Kyrus—a human priest trapped in the body of a monkey—encounter a swarm of desert nomads attacking a caravan. Mortu swings into action, saving the caravan and its precious cargo. The pair are then invited back to the White City, the mysterious, ancient ruin the travelers have taken for their own. The barbarian and the small monk accept, grateful for the rest. But the seemingly utopian society the travelers have built in the White City holds a dark secret.
If you're familiar with Le Guin's famous short, you can already guess at the nature of that secret. If not, well...
I'm about to go into it, so from here on out the review will CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS, both for "Mortu and Kyrus" and for "Omelas."
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is more of a parable than a story. Wikipedia calls it a work of "philosophical fiction," which I guess is a good enough description. There are no characters, no conflicts, little else except the setting, and even that's kept deliberately vague.
In it, an omniscient narrator describes the city of Omelas as a perfect society, one in which everyone is happy except for one small child. That child is kept in a basement, abused, half starved, and suffering. The suffering of the child is somehow tied to the happiness of everyone else. If the child is ever shown kindness, ever taken out of the basement, ever so much as washed to clean his or her own excrement off, then everyone else in the society will be unhappy. The narrator describes how the citizens of Omelas find various ways of justifying the child's suffering as "necessary." The exceptions, of course, are the titular "Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," those who learn of the child's suffering, cannot abide it, and leave the city forever.
Quite honestly, I never understood the appeal of Le Guin's piece. It struck me as a half-assed attempt at presenting an ethical thought experiment, like the trolley problem. And when I say half-assed, I don't mean the writing. Le Guin is pretty much beyond reproach in terms of prose.
I mean it's half-assed in the construction of the ethical problem.
The moral dilemma presented in "Omelas" is simple and straightforward: preserve utopia by permitting the unspeakable suffering of one, or relieve that suffering and destroy utopia?
The problem I always had with "Omelas" is that those two things are in no way equal, at least not in the way the story lays them out. No indication is given that the citizens of Omelas will suffer genuine consequences if someone helps the child. No one will die. No one else will be tortured. The only consequence is that their idyllic perfection will vanish, and they'll somehow be "unhappy."
I could honestly never see the moral dilemma there, even as a teenager. Choose between vaguely defined happiness and torture? What the hell is there to think about? Torturing the kid is wrong. Full stop. End of discussion. Jesus, how is this even a question!?
Well, Hernstrom plays with a similar set-up in "Mortu and Kyrus." But in my opinion, he does something infinitely more interesting with Le Guin's premise.
Scratch that. He does two things:
The first is that he gives a reason for the citizens of the White City to engage in the horrific torture of the child, as well as real consequences for them should the torture ever stop.
As Mortu and Kyrus learn, the ancient architects of the city left behind advanced technology. Chief among the relics is a machine capable of rendering those within the city immortal, but it does so by painfully draining the life force of one person over the course of several years. The citizens of the White City purchase orphans from nearby settlements to feed the machine, rationalizing that the life of one unwanted child is a small price to pay for their own god-like existence. If the machine ever stops, their immortality ends, the centuries will catch up with them, and they'll die.
It's an important change. With something more on the line than "happiness," the torture and brutality take on a more realistic, believable dimension.
The second interesting thing Hernstrom does is that he actually answers the moral question Le Guin never really got around to presenting.
See, the trolley problem forces the subject to choose between two unspeakable wrongs. It's a true ethical dilemma: which of these equally awful things is the "right" choice? "Omelas," on the other hand, presents us with a clear right and a clear wrong, and then pretends its asking a deep question by rigging the answer.
What do I mean by that?
Le Guin only ever tells us about two groups of people: Those who stay in Omelas, giving tacit consent to the torture, and "the ones who walk away." The sight of the child shakes them to the core, they cannot live in such an awful place, so they leave.
But the ones that walk away are just as guilty as those who don't. They're still allowing the torture of the child to continue, only they can partly absolve themselves of responsibility since they're not enjoying any of the benefits.
Even so, given the choice between "vaguely-defined happiness for the many" and "objectively measurable torture and child abuse," literally everyone in the story chooses child abuse.
This is another reason I've never gotten what people see in this story. For all that "Omelas" is touted as some deeply philosophical think-piece, it's really not much more than a nihilistic statement about human nature.
Sorry, but I already get enough of that outside my fiction.
Fortunately, there's absolutely none of that nihilism on display during the climax of Hernstrom's tale. Instead, the author gives the only answer to Le Guin's question that I ever really believed in. Not only does Mortu save the child and ensure the destruction of utopia, he gives that destruction a head start, taking up his shield and his battle axe, and killing anyone who comes within reach.
Just prior to writing this review, I re-read "Omelas" to reacquaint myself with it. This quote particularly stuck out:
"They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians."
Contrast that quote against Robert E. Howard, one of Hernstrom's biggest cited influences. Howard's main recurring theme was civilization's corruption and decadence, as opposed to the savage but straightforward barbarians on the fringes.
On this re-reading, Omelas struck me as the ultimate expression of the decadent, corrupt civilizations Howard's barbarian heroes rail against. A perfect and peaceful veneer, hiding a rotten core. But if Omelas is the ultimate expression of decadent civilization, the bloody path Mortu carves through the White City is the ultimate refutation of it.
Schuyler Hernstrom sees our Ursula Le Guin. And he raises us a Robert E. Howard.
"Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" is available on kindle for $0.99.
If you travel in pulp sword and sorcery circles long enough, sooner or later you're going to run into the name Schuyler Hernstrom. And with good reason. Few writers working today have grasped the pulp S&S aesthetic as throughly as Hernstrom. The stories in this collection deliver old-school action, weird fantasy, and hard-hitting heroes.
Originally appearing in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, "The Challenger's Garland" is the only reprint. The story follows Molok, a ringwraith-like servant of the Death God, on his journey to challenge yet another champion in his lord's name. The tale is short, and there aren't any real surprises here. Especially not after we're introduced to Lobon, the champion. Even so, Hernstrom's telling is immensely satisfying. Rather than feeling predictable, the linear nature of the story gives the events a sense of finality, and portrays the characters as slaves to an inescapable fate.
"Athan and the Priestess" is the story that gives this collection its title. Athan, warlord of the steppes, receives a vision from Thune, the tribe's dying wizard. Athan is tasked with crossing the magic wall separating the steppe from the lands to their ancient enemies, the Ullin. There, he is to lay with the Ullin High Priestess and father a mighty son. The following adventure is a fantasy in the classic Weird Tales mode, with strange sorcery, wicked goddesses, and ancient towers.
"Movements of the Ige" is almost a science fantasy. The story details a ritualistic battle between the primitive, lizard-like denizens of an unnamed planet. The proceedings are interrupted when an otherworldly "egg" drops from the sky, bringing with it some alien explorers. Once again, there are few surprises here. But Hernstrom paints an exceptionally vivid and well-realized culture among the lizard-like Ige in this short tale.
"The Ecology of the Unicorn" is more-or-less a Vance pastiche. While not explicitly set on Vance's Dying Earth, Hernstrom's work here recalls the earlier, loosely-linked shorts that made up the first Dying Earth collection, especially "Turjan of Miir" and "Mazirian the Magician." The plot is simple enough: the wizard Malathiksos seeks immortality, demanding the help of a captive fae creature named Rutu. The flourishes are what make this story stand out, and the flourishes are pure Vance. In other hands, this one would be a complete misfire, but Hernstrom pulls it off admirably. The ironic twist ending is a hat-tip the master himself would have probably enjoyed.
The longest story in the collection, and probably my favorite, is "Adalwolf's Saga." In a pseudo-Norse/Germanic culture, Adalwolf must avenge his father's death against a rival warlord. The initial battle goes poorly, with only Adalwolf and his brother, Gasto, escaping the field. At first believing himself cursed, Adalwolf soon gains the favor of the All-Father. But his righteous quest for vengeance gradually twists into self-serving ambition, and Gasto questions whether or not the All-Father will be pleased.
It's incredibly rare for me to buy a single-author collection and enjoy every story. Thune's Vision was an exception.
If you enjoy reading the pulp greats of yesteryear, particularly Robert E. Howard or Jack Vance, then I highly recommend this collection. It might not be up to the lofty standards of those two masters, but it scratches that old-school itch in a way that most modern fantasy doesn't.
Thune's Vision is available on Kindle for $2.99. There's also a paperback edition available for $5.00.
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.