Monday, November 17, 2014

Flashing Swords!

These two gems are from my adolescent collection, fished out of my mother's house last summer. Edited by Lin Carter, the Oscar Williams of fantasy literature, they were published by Dell in 1973 and 1974. I've just re-read them as part of the project of "locating" Moorcock within the evolving subgenre of sword & sorcery (Fritz Leiber's term—MM prefers "epic fantasy"). S&S doesn't get much respect in most reputable literary circles, probably rightly; if science fiction is the prog rock of literature, then fantasy is the heavy metal; and sword & sorcery fiction is the Kiss.

The two anthologies are made up of new work by the 8 members of SAGA—"The Swordsmen and Sorcerers Guild of America"—an informal group started by Carter & others sometime I'd guess around the turn of the '60s/'70s. The stories range pretty widely in quality (more on that later), but what I'm really interested is how they represent the field, and how various that field is in contrast to the stereotypical impression we usually have of S&S—you know, hard-thewed barbarians smiting giant snakes while semi-nude women crouch at their feet, etc.: an impression largely formed by Frank Frazetta's cover paintings, first for the '60s reissues of Edgar Rice Burroughs and then for the Lancer/Ace 12-volume edition of the Conan books.

Moorcock is probably best known for his character Elric of Melniboné, the doomed last emperor of his dying race, an albino dependent on his soul-sucking sword Stormbringer for strength and sustenance, etc. etc. Elric is often seen as a kind of exception to the general run of S&S protagonists, a kind of dark horse proto-Goth figure; he is the anti-Conan. Where Conan is the product of nature, Elric is the overrefined end-result of elaborate civilization. Conan is wholesome and strong; Elric morbid and weak; Conan straightforward to the point of thickness, Elric too subtle for his own good.

But it's worth noting a few things, many of them discoverable from Carter's introductions to these Flashing Swords! anthologies, which aim to introduce new readers to the field. Conan was of course introduced in the 1930s in 18 or so stories by Robert E. Howard in Weird Tales. While the character was quite popular and the overall "frame" of the S&S tale caught the imagination of a number of emulators, those who wrote S&S stories in Howard's immediate wake did so in a variety of registers, from CL Moore's swordswoman Jirel of Joiry, to Leiber's seriocomic pair Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, to Jack Vance's phantasmagoric Dying World. In other words, S&S was by no means a wasteland of Conan-clones in the 1940s and 1950s.

Moorcock invents Elric around 1961, in response to a specific editorial request for something in the Conan vein—something swordly and sorcerous, that is. But he does so well before the field becomes thick with heavy-thewed barbarians. That only happens a few years later, when Lancer's Conan reissues (and pastiches) take the world by storm, and people like Lin Carter and John Jakes start cranking out carbon copy barbarian stories (Carter's Thongor, Jakes's Brak the Barbarian). My sense is that things get even more barbarian-heavy after Conan hits the big time with the really quite excellent Marvel comic, and then the even bigger time with the Arnold Schwartzenegger film (1982). After that it gets pretty easy to dismiss S&S on the basis of things like Beastmaster and so forth. 

But in the early 1960s, when Moorcock introduces Elric, it's not as tho he's thrown a Byronic anti-hero into a arena full of barbarian Dudley Do-Rights; rather, he's thrown a Byronic anti-hero into a fairly limited, but already quite diverse field.
So how do the Flashing Swords! anthologies hold up 40 years later? Actually, surprisingly well. Fritz Leiber contributes a kind of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser meta-squib, but written with his usual wit and economy. Jack Vance's "Morreion" is as with so much of his work weird and lovely, his prose inimitably mannered. Poul Anderson's "The Merman's Children" is beautiful, really affecting; I've decided Anderson is possibly as close to a great writer as 1st & 2nd generation S&S gets. 

L. Sprague de Camp contributes a highly readable story relying more on sorcery than swordsmanship (thankfully)—the guy is clearly a pro, doing his job a bit better than he needs to. Andre Norton's "Witch World" story is on a level close to the Anderson piece, while including a good deal of rather familiar Conan-ish physical violence. Her willingness to convincingly enter her characters' consciousness, however, is far greater than that of most of her fellow SAGA-nauts.

The John Jakes story, yet another "Brak" piece, is nugatory, and quite badly written; the Carter story is pretty badly written as well, and is only readable (once) because LC's clearly edging his way towards an ironic or satirical stance towards the whole subgenre—the kind of thing that Terry Pratchett will do so well a decade later.

And the Moorcock story? "The Jade Man's Eyes" is an Elric piece; it isn't particularly well written on a prose level, but it has a kind of conceptual ambition that goes beyond anything else in the two collections. Don't get me wrong—both the Anderson and the Norton stories are very, very good of their kind; but here Moorcock as so often shows himself grappling with "big" conceptual issues (fate, free will, chaos & law, etc.). I like that kind of ambition, even if it shows up awkwardly all too often in Moorcock's books, and coexists uneasily with his oft-stated desire always to entertain.