One, the notion of heroic fantasy, arose from a brief exchange with Cynthia Ward on Facebook. She'd pointed to an article by Howard Andrew Jones on the definition of "sword and sorcery." The article takes a historical perspective, with quotes and references to such distinguished figures as Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert E. Howard. Lin Carter describes "a story...which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil." Yep, sounds like Conan the Infinitely Sequelized. Adventure-horror-bulging muscles-brass bikinis. (By the way, I'm not interested in arguing about the exact definition or whether the author is right. I'm happy to concede to greater erudition on the subject. It may well be that the best way to describe the subgenre is historically, but I don't see any benefit in playing "my definition is better than yours.")
So I mentioned this to Cynthia, who replied that her stories in Sword and Sorceress didn't fit the traditional definition, either. She suggested that "sword and sorcery" is a subset of Heroic Fantasy, "which probably includes nearly every story in MZB's Sword and Sorceress anthos." I rather like the idea of heroic fantasy as an umbrella that covers both the historical-sword-and-sorcery (a la Conan, etc.) and more modern and inclusive incarnations.
This brings me to the second thought, which is that one of my discomforts with traditional/historically-defined sword and sorcery, as opposed to heroic fantasy, is that it seems he (or she) with the biggest sword and the meanest spirit wins. Jones says, "The protagonists of sword and sorcery are most often common folk or barbarians struggling not for the world's sake, but for their own gain." Granted, altruism makes for tepid motivation in an adventure story, but so -- although for different reasons -- does selfishness.
The kind of heroism I am interested in writing and reading about has a different premise. In the rabbinic tradition, a hero is "one who turns an enemy into a friend" (Avot deRabi Natan 23)
In other words, he who has the most generous heart and the greatest soul, not the biggest sword, wins.
This notion does not fit easily into the warrior-against-evil or survival-and-revenge stories. "In such a world," writes L. Sprague de Camp, "gleaming cities raise their shining spires against the stars; sorcerors cast sinister spells from subterranean lairs; baleful spirits stalk thickets; and the fate of kingdoms is balanced on the bloody blades of broadswords brandished by heroes of preternatural might and valor." I love the intensely exotic settings, action and romance. But I'm not particularly interested in the moment that warrior slays the last of his unrelentingly-evil enemies. I am, however, interested in that moment of compassion, of insight, that is the seed of something even greater.
It's all too easy to construct cardboard villains, whole races of them. Unlike real life, we don't have to worry about dehumanizing the enemy; we just make them non-human, subhuman, demonic, whatever, to begin with. Cut-and-dried good-and-evil battle lines are seductive in their simplicity, but ultimately flat, stale, without sustenance.
We all deserve better.