The cover for Swords and Dark Magic, an anthology in which I’ve got a story coming out in June next year. You’ll note the sub-title, “The New Sword and Sorcery”. The editors – Lou Anders (who publishes the First Law in the US, among many other things) and Jonathan Strahan – perceived something of a new flourishing of sword and sorcery of late, or perhaps an ascendance of sword and sorcery influences within chunky fantasy, and so they decided to produce an anthology that aimed to present in one volume stories from some of the established masters of the subgenre with some from the newer pipsqueaks and impostors such as myself. Looking at the writers involved (Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, Gene Wolfe, James Enge, C.J. Cherryh, K. J. Parker, Garth Nix, Michael Moorcock, Tim Lebbon, Robert Silverberg, Greg Keyes, Michael Shea, Scott Lynch, Tanith Lee, Caitlin R Kiernan, Bill Willingham, and some idiot called Joe Abercrombie) it would seem they’ve succeeded admirably.
I’m delighted to have a story included in such heavyweight company, of course, but it begs a question that I’ve been thinking about a little bit ever since. Not as much as, “ow, my neck hurts,” or, “man, my house is cold,” but a bit.
Do I write Sword and Sorcery?
Well do I, punk? When I started writing, I probably wouldn’t have said so. I’d have said I write important mainstream literary books that plumb the depths of the human condition, and just so happen to include a few wizards, a magic tower or two, and a whole lot of swords. A ha ha! Of course I wouldn’t have said that, that would’ve been absurd. I’d have said I write epic fantasy. Important epic fantasy that plumbs the depth of the human condition.
The fantasy that I read growing up – those books that I’d consider my early influences – are really much more from the epic school. The grandaddy himself, of course, and the wellspring from which the subgenre flows – David Eddings. But also the writers from that great tradition of core 80s epic fantasy who were so influenced by him, like Weiss and Hickman, Michael Scott Rohan and JRR Tolkein. Le Guin’s Earthsea was another, though I always saw that as being somehow in a slightly different category – maybe because they were so much shorter and more focused, or maybe because they had such a distinct feel. The only guy I really read who one would say is in the tradition of sword and sorcery was Michael Moorcock – mainly Elric and Corum – but, on the whole, no doubt, when it came to my fantasy I liked it epic. That feeling was only cemented when later, in the 90s, after I’d largely stopped reading fantasy, I came upon George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones and was blown away by seeing a lot of things I felt had been missing from the genre so surprisingly and ruthlessly expressed.
So (and prepare yourself to cringe) up until I started taking my own writing seriously, until after The Blade Itself was published, even, I’d never read any Howard (though I frequently watched Conan the Barbarian as a boy). I’d never read any Fritz Leiber (though my Dad had some of his scifi on the special scifi shelf, the one down behind the sofa). I’d never even heard of Jack Vance. Oh, the horror.
Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories featuring swashbuckling rogues Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (which I thoroughly advise you to read because in the main they’re still hugely enjoyable) epitomise Sword and Sorcery for me. They were written over a few decades, but the earlier ones are roughly contemporary with Lord of the Rings, and reading them now they feel like the road not travelled by commercial fantasy in the 80s and early 90s. In a sense (and within the confines of being adventure stories within a medievalish setting featuring magic and swords) they are the opposite of Tolkien. Vivid, murky, self-serving characters in brief, focused, small-scale stories in decidedly seedy, smelly, lawless, gritty settings – what might be called ‘low’ fantasy rather than ‘high’. Character and action are emphasised over rigorous worldbuilding. Above all they have a sense of humour, a sense of fun, a sense of not taking it all too seriously.
It feels to me now as if Sword and Sorcery was on the heavy retreat in the eighties, at least in significant written form, crushed under an avalanche of Tolkien-cloning world-build-a-thons and moral absolutes in big, chunky, epic form (though I daresay it was still flourishing in dank and seedy corners unknown to the front of the bookstore). But where it was hugely influential, I now realise, was in the development of Role Playing Games. Short, focused stories about small groups of seedy, wisecracking characters out for themselves were custom made for the format. Adventures and campaigns of that type are vastly easier to run than epic confrontations of good against evil with casts of thousands. Having read Vance, Lieber and Howard now I can see their thumbprints are all over Dungeons and Dragons, and of course the influence of Dungeons and Dragons on roleplaying, both of the dice and paper variety and later of the computerised variety, is profound.
It’s interesting (albeit probably not terribly surprising) that so many fantasy authors were role-players in their day. Looking at that list above I know that Scott Lynch published supplements in his time, and Steven Erikson’s world is based on one developed for role-playing. I’d be shocked if a lot of the other contributors didn’t have a few strange-looking dice at the back of a cupboard somewhere. Now I’d imagine most of them have long been familiar with writers like Howard and Leiber, but for me the Sword and Sorcery came circuitously, via roleplaying games, fused with Tolkien and the epic stuff he inspired, and led (seasoned by thousands of other non-fantasy book, film, and gaming influences) to the bastard offspring which is my work. Looking at what I produce now (and especially at Best Served Cold), I feel it has as much in common, at heart, with Leiber as it does with Tolkien.
So do I write Sword and Sorcery? Yeah, I guess, kinda. The New Sword and Sorcery, maybe?