Friday, June 10, 2011

Heroic Fantasy According To Deborah

Two thoughts collided in a snowy wood...

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.")

By these measures, however, I have never written a sword and sorcery story, yet my work has appeared in just about every volume of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress. I've featured swordswomen, wise women, sorceresses of many different types, even ordinary characters with extraordinary wit going up against greater might/magic. I wonder whether those anthologies are really "sword and sorcery" or just happened to have a similar title-theme, and what Marion's role was in shaping them the way she did. Marion said she specifically did not want stories featuring "Conan in drag." She wanted stories of physical courage, of magic and wonder and adventure, with strong women characters.

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.

One of Marion's lesser-known Darkover novels, Two to Conquer, features an incredibly unlikeable -- nay, absolutely detestable -- viewpoint character. He's arrogant, self-serving, manipulative, violent, sexually brutal. The list of reasons why he should get whatever is coming to him is a long one. A lot of readers got very upset with the book. Marion, what were you doing, writing about this monster who rapes women's minds as well as their bodies? What she was doing was setting him up to experience the all the agonies he had inflicted on others. The story is as much about the birth of empathy and repairing of harms as it is about swordplay or military strategy. That is the kind of story I want to read, whether it is called "sword and sorcery," "heroic fantasy" or anything else.

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.


  1. I believe it's easier to accept that evil is ugly and frightening, and easily recognizable as "bad". No one wants to believe that evil can come in a pretty package.
    We don't want to believe that we won't see it coming, won't know who or what it is. That it could be anyone. It's what we've been programed to believe since childhood, and it's what helps us sleep better. JMHO

  2. @Chris -- I really appreciate your point about how we equate good = beautiful, evil = ugly. On top of that, beautiful and ugly are so highly determined by culture, advertising, etc. Yet we all know people who are "homely" in appearance but have the most radiant spirits, the most giving hearts. How do we unlearn what the media and advertising has taught us to value, and instead treasure the quality of a person's character, to paraphrase MLKJr?

    For one thing, we as writers refuse to propagate the bias of superficiality. We create characters who are complex and who grow from their experiences, whose insight is as important as their sword skill. We remember that every character -- every person -- is a hero in his own life.

  3. I am glad to hear your characterization of Two to Conquer. I am in the process of rereading all the Darkover books (inserting your new publications in the chronology :) for the first time in some years. I was intrigued by how different my experience was of the book this time around. The first time I read it in my 20s (20+ years ago) I came away horrified - almost traumatized - and it was years before I could face the book again. This time, partly because I was forewarned, I was more clearly able to recognize it as a human story of tragedy and redemption.

    Contemporary events in our cities and around the world offer plenty of examples of brutality, cruelty, jealousy, vengeance - the worst of our human shadow side - as we, in our confusion, strive to find peace of mind via whatever means seem relevant to our cultures and values. In my experience, we create far crueler stories for ourselves about reality and other people's judgments about us than actually exist. I think now that I hated Bard so much when I was younger because I denied that his were human thoughts and emotions, and could have been my own. I understand now that the difference is not whether confused thoughts run through my mind, but whether I actually believe them, and as you mention in other posts, how I act on them, or not.

    It took Carlina's heroic act of love and compassion to reveal to Bard his own ego, to show Bard that the grip of his brutalizing stories on his own mind could be broken, and that he was indeed connected with humanity. The development of Carlina's courage to face him down and the evolution of empathy in such a brutal man is far more compelling and inspiring to me than might-makes-right sword battles. And I’d venture to say it’s what the world needs more of now, as well.
    With respect and appreciation, Juliette

  4. Juliette, thank you for your thoughtful and honest response. Like you, I was upset and outraged the first time I read TWO TO CONQUER. Fortunately, I'd already met Marion and I trusted that she had tackled a difficult subject with forthrightness (and not a little courage, given the intensity of the reactions). It's all too easy to reject people who have behaved in terrible ways, instead of finding ways to instill compassion in them.

    I'd love to put up your comments as a Guest Blog, with your permission.

  5. I just sent off a story to a purported sword-and-sorcery antho, which wd. fit far better with your umbrella def. of heroic fantasy - it concerns a warrior hero, but its turning point (n the new version) is a moment of guilt, penitence and compassion acted upon by a goddess. Probably it won't get into the antho, but for me, sword and sorcery has to have a moral dimension or I'm not interested. Writing or reading it.

  6. I just sent off a story to a purported sword-and-sorcery antho, which wd. fit far better with your umbrella def. of heroic fantasy - it concerns a warrior hero, but its turning point (n the new version) is a moment of guilt, penitence and compassion acted upon by a goddess. Probably it won't get into the antho, but for me, sword and sorcery has to have a moral dimension or I'm not interested. Writing or reading it.

  7. Sylvia, that's a great point about having a moral dimension -- I think of it as a moral compass. There are many ways this can work in sword and sorcery or heroic fantasy -- who the hero is, who the villain is, whether magic is evil or beneficial, what choices the protagonist makes -- which is half the fun, I think, turning expectations inside out. But what makes it all work is that moral compass.