The Sword and Sorcery Anthology – David G Hartwell and Jacob Weisman, editors

And my third review of 2012 for Interzone

The Sword and Sorcery Anthology

David G Hartwell and Jacob Weisman, eds., Tachyon Publications, 480pp, pb

Sword and sorcery came into being as a term of reference in 1961, when Michael Moorcock demanded a term for the fantasy adventure stories written by people such as Robert E Howard. Moorcock initially proposed ‘epic fantasy’ but it was Fritz Leiber, author of the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, themselves quintessential examples of the form, who suggested ‘sword-and-sorcery as a good popular catchphrase for the field’.

As I read this anthology, one question kept resurfacing: why do we need a sword and sorcery anthology in 2012? Was it intended as an historical survey? The stories are not arranged in strictly chronological order and there is a mysterious thirty-year gap between Howard’s ‘Tower of the Elephant’ (1933) and Moore’s ‘Black God’s Kiss’ (1934) representing the sub-genre’s inception, and 1962, the year in which Moorcock’s ‘The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams’ and Leiber’s ‘The Unholy Grail’ were published. After that, there are examples from the 1970s and 1980s, one from 1998, and five from the twenty-first century, two of them original to the collection. Thematic, then, except that sword and sorcery is so distinctive a sub-genre it is difficult to ring much in the way of changes beyond male protagonist or female (and there are a gratifying number, from Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, via Joanna Russ’s Alyx, to stories by Jane Yolen, Rachel Pollack, Charles R Saunders, George R.R. Martin and Caitlin R Kiernan).

To move too far from the central motif – the individual, almost always a loner, often driven by the memory of past inglorious deeds, handy with a sword as well as possessing a broad range of other skills, often cutting their moral cloth to suit the coat of circumstance – is to move into the broader arena of heroic fantasy or beyond . As a sub-genre sword and sorcery appears remarkably resistant to reinvention; even parody looks so much like the real thing it is impossible to tell the difference. Sword and sorcery does not easily lend itself to wit. Russ’s feminist reworking, ‘The Adventuress’ (1967) perhaps comes closest to refocusing the genre but that is so long ago; if a more recent feminist refashioning has taken place (and that requires more than a female protagonist) it is not included here.

In terms of the emotional development of the characters on the page, I was enjoying Glen Cook’s ‘Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted with Defeat’ (1980), by far the longest story in the collection, not least for the novelty of a protagonist who, while he was inevitably exceptional and gifted, did not reach for the sword as his first response. It then occurred to me that the plot, of a stranger who stays to help a family threatened by the local lord, was incredibly familiar: in fact, it is almost identical to George Stevens’ 1953 film, Shane. Poul Anderson ‘The Tale of Hauk’ (1977) is simply a reworking of an Icelandic saga, and even Caitlin R Kiernan’s ‘The Sea Troll’s Daughter’, for all its amusing twists and turns, leans heavily on Beowulf leavened by a dash of Russ. It’s one of the best stories in the collection but is it really sword and sorcery?

While the stories are not bad examples of the genre, so far as they go, this collection lacks any sense of context: the stories are not introduced properly and there are no author biographies. David Drake’s ‘Guided Ramble’ is indeed that, mere anecdotal scraps concerning his own involvement in the field, mainly through Schiff’s Whispers magazine. Not a word about that thirty-year gap. One needs to look elsewhere to explain it. Drake’s main observation, that stories about heroes and their deeds are ‘storytelling as the Cro-Magnons practiced it; and this is the essence of sword and sorcery fiction’, only reinforces the feeling that sword and sorcery has made few significant advances as a genre. This collection certainly doesn’t take the discussion any further.