Elric and the Advent of Sword and Sorcery

I probably don’t need to remind anyone that there are a lot of genres of literature out there. Sometimes, of course, books can be forced into categories that they truly don’t match, but for the most part, the reason we have genres is because a lot of stories tend to fall into those categories fairly neatly.

And for every genre of writing, there are endless sub-genres, too. Look no further than Amazon’s ranking system, where The Redemption of Erâth falls under “Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Epic” as equally as “Literature and Fiction > Horror > Dark Fantasy”. (I don’t make up these categories, nor did I place my books into them; there’s precious little horror in The Redemption of Erâth.) The goal of this, of course, is to make accessing literature easier, so that the reader knows what to expect. After all, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are both considered fantasy, yet they have about as much in common as The Wheel of Time does with A Song of Ice and Fire.

But then, every once in a while, something comes along that redefines a genre. Or, if you’re lucky, creates a new one. Within the world of fantasy, which typically governs stories with alternate worlds, magic and medieval-type settings, the gamut runs from high fantasy – set in an entirely alternate world – to urban fantasy – set in a cross between a fantasy world and the real world. And whilst Tolkien is typically regarded as the master of the first, with C.S. Lewis arguably pioneering the second, today I want to talk about a genre that is sometimes unfairly dismissed as ‘easy’, or less serious: sword & sorcery.

Sword & sorcery fantasy, as the title implies, typically deals with the heroic adventures of a sword-wielding hero as they go from battle to battle, traveling the length and breadth of whatever world they’re set in, often pitted against dark sorcerers or magicians. Whilst there are obviously many possible crossovers between sword & sorcery and other fantasy sub-genres, some of the key elements are that the hero often knows they are the hero, and may even embrace that fact; also, that those same heroes typically live for adventure, and may go seeking for the glory of battle.

The term “sword & sorcery” was first coined by author Michael Moorcock in a letter to the magazine Amra, looking to describe the works of Robert E. Howard, and in particular, his Conan adventures. He was looking for something to distinguish these tales from other, similar genres, whilst focusing on the supernatural/mythical element that is so often prevalent in the genre.

Michael Moorcock himself became one of the best-known names in the sword & sorcery genre with his ongoing tales of Elric, the last emperor of Melniboné, and his adventures through lands of danger and deception. One of the lynchpins of sword & sorcery – the sword – makes a prominent appearance in these stories in the form of Stormbringer, a weapon that both confers strength to Elric (a physically weak antihero) whilst also eating away at his soul.

I remember greatly enjoying the tales of Elric and Stormbringer when I was young, primarily because they didn’t necessarily come with the deathly-serious world-saving implications of books such as The Lord of the Rings. It was adventure, pure and simple; there were stakes, yes, but they were always personal to the hero, and the world was just the world in which these adventures took place. For me it was refreshing, as so many of the tales I had read unto that point revolved around a reluctant hero that had to save their entire world (too many stories today, I fear, follow this tradition – including my own!).

It’s an interesting sort of idea, I think, to have a story whose sole purpose is to entertain; a story that has no allegory or moral, no lesson to be learned, and no great consequences for the world should the hero fail is something that provides a delightful escape from the realities of the ‘real’ world around us. And whilst there will always be a place for the Harry Potters and the Brandyé Dui-Erâths, there should equally be room for the Elrics, too.

What are your favorite sword & sorcery fantasies, and why?

Thought of the Week: The Role of the Fantasy Sword

When I first began delving into the world of fantasy, a quest that would eventually lead to the world of Erâth, Brandyé Dui-Erâth and his journey into darkness, I came across a number of articles outlining common themes throughout fantasy literature. At first, of course, I thought I had to adhere to these commandments, laid down by the god of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. As time, and the novel, progressed, however, I began to realize the value of originality, and discovered certain aspects that deviated from the tried and true classical form of fantasy. One key element was that I came to realize there were no true ‘heroes’ in my story. The protagonist, Brandyé, is weak, both physically and emotionally, preyed upon by both beasts and darkness. There are no master figures, no Aragorns or Gandalfs to save the day. There are people with kind hearts that nonetheless do cruel things.

The metaphor is (I hope) different as well. Whereas Tolkien’s darkness was (in my mind) a metaphor for the dismal horrors of war, for me it holds a much more personal facet: it is the great, all-consuming and unsurmountable darkness of depression and despair. The world is already covered in darkness; the forces of good have already lost. Our hero has no conviction, and despairs that he can ever do good in his life.

However, there are still many elements that fit neatly the stereotype of high fantasy, such as a dark lord, fictional worlds and languages, a quest to defeat said dark lord, kingdoms great and small, etc. And one of the elements preserved, though I didn’t know it at the time, was the fantasy sword.


The Shards of Narsil

Nearly every high fantasy story I can think of (though I’m not as widely read as I should be) has swords, which is natural for a genre that tends to romanticize the middle ages. But more than that, there is usually at least one sword, if not several, that has a merit beyond its ability to kill. These swords have a history, their forging is legendary, their uses are magical, and in the right hands they are undefeatable. The Lord of the Rings has NarsilElric has StormbringerHarry Potter has the Sword of Griffindor, although I would argue that the wands represent the same functional place as these others. The Redemption of Erâth has Namrâth.

It’s hard to deny that these swords are an integral part of such fantasy, but it became curious to me that it should be so. Certainly swords are necessary if the story is to contain fighting of any kind, and it would be poor fantasy indeed if there were not epic battles involved. But the question remains precisely why it is so important that there be at least one sword with mystical origins and powers.

I have one or two thoughts on the matter, which may or may not be way off the mark. Wikipedia has a fantastic list of famous fantasy swords, and one of the first things I noticed is that, with the exception of J.K. Rowling, every author who has invented such a sword (including myself) is a man. Cue the obvious sexual innuendos. High fantasy rarely has sexual content of any kind, and even romance is often sidelined (the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings is hardly touched upon in the book, as opposed to Peter Jackson’s film versions). And it’s easy to see how a great, whopping sword could be seen as a phallic symbol. (Interesting, then, that Rowling’s wands are so small!) These swords are themselves almost invariably wielded by men, and represent their great strength and prowess. It’s certainly possible that, consciously or unconsciously, these magical swords represent the manliness of their bearers.

A magical mace?

A magical mace?

Another, more mundane explanation could be that there have to be mystical swords. After all, what fun would it be if the great demon lord was defeated by any old blade kicking around on the battlefield? Great, magical beings require great, magical weapons, and the sword is the natural weapon of choice. (Brandyé, in The Redemption of Erâth, actually carries a crossbow for the majority of the first book.) But why not magical maces, or whips (Indiana Jones, I suppose), or daggers? Perhaps because there is something clean about a sword, that it can effortlessly stab, slice and decapitate with little or no mess. A great spiked mace is a pretty messy weapon, it has to be said, and high fantasy is, along with being romance-less, usually pretty bloodless.

Finally, the thought that comes to me is that the magical sword represents power greater than the wielder can manage; the metaphor of runaway technology leading to the wars in which they are actually used. Elric’s Stormbringer, sucking the souls of any it touches, is exemplary of this: the sword is a curse to its wielder, who becomes ever more bound to it the more he uses it.

Perhaps there is another, socio-psychological answer to this pondering question; if so, I am too blind to see it. Perhaps the fantasy sword just is, no questions asked. But I’d like to turn this over to you: what do you think the purpose of these fantastical swords is?

Featured image taken from http://www.deviantart.com/morelikethis/artists/274055104?view_mode=2.

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