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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sword and Sorcery: Why?

Some fantasy literature, including some of the most important, is sometimes referred to as "sword and sorcery" fantasy. The phrase is often disparaging. No doubt the disparagement is sometimes well-deserved. I make no claim to have read all of the books in this category, by a long shot, but, based on what I see in bookstores, some of them are probably hack work, written mainly to sell, rather than from an artistic impulse. Nonetheless, some of these books have, or will, stand the test of time. Here's a more or less random list of books that I have read, all set in pre-gunpowder societies:
"The Lord of the Rings"works by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon
The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander
The Narnia books by C. S. Lewis
Works by Juliet Marillier
The Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Chalion novels, and the Sharing Knife tetralogy, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Most of the works of Patricia McKillip

Some of the works above take place on Earth, in a previous time. Some take place on unspecified planets. The Narnia books take place in both 20th century Earth, and also in another planet, or maybe even in another universe. But the world of Narnia is a sword and sorcery world.

You can add your own to these lists, probably. Why swords? Why sorcery?

Let's deal with the sorcery first.

Tolkien coined the word, eucatastrophe. More or less, it means some amazing turn of events, leading to a good outcome. We all want our mothers to eat an apple from another world, and get well. We would hope that the elves come out of the woods to our aid, driving off evil enemies. In other words, even though many 21st century English-speakers don't believe in miracles, they wish that they could, and are thrilled when miracles happen. We may also thrill when great evil is encountered by fictional characters -- when Ged has to go into the realm of the dead, across the wall of stones, to heal a kingdom, or when Eowyn faces an evil spirit-wizard, who is mounted on a dreadful flying creature.

Sorcery, or magic, also enables unlikely, or common folk to become important. An Assistant Pig-Keeper, or a long-legged Ranger, becomes a king. A sheepfarmer's daughter becomes a great hero. A boy from an obscure village becomes a great Archmage.

Another appealing feature of many works containing sorcery is that good is good, and evil is evil. Most of us like clear friends and enemies, I guess. Granted, there are sometimes turncoats -- Susan stops believing, or Saruman seeks only his own ends, not the good he was supposed to. But usually we can tell the good from the bad. There are no good orcs.

Some of these things can happen in real life, too, but they don't happen to us, and it's nice to read about them, and put ourselves in these situations.

How about the swords?

Swords, for one thing, speak of the past. When you and I and others read sword and sorcery fantasy, we are, perhaps, seeking a past golden age. If there are combustion engines, airplanes, and assault rifles, we know that we are near our own present, with its problems.

Swords don't require much technology. In fact, swords were apparently invented and used in the Bronze Age. So swords are, in part, a symbol of the rejection of technology. Tolkien, for one, disliked the technology of his twentieth century, and most or all of the "advances" in technology in his books are for evil purposes.

Swords are personal weapons, and, although most authors and readers of sword and sorcery fiction have never used them, we know this. You can't kill or injure someone with a sword without seeing them, without a personal encounter.

Swords require skill to use. I suppose that guns do, too, but pointing and pulling a trigger don't seem to require much training or practice, whereas using a sword effectively does require training and practice. (Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion spends a fair amount of text on this.)

So, in some ways, swords are more humane weapons than guns.

Swords are also spiritual symbols. (See Hebrews 4:12)

It is no great surprise, then, that swords play key roles in some of these books, and, no doubt, in others. In The Deed of Paksenarrion, and in The Lord of the Rings, particular swords, forged by elves, play a role.

I'm sure that a great deal more has, should, and will be said about this topic. Comment if you will.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

On July 18, 2009, I added a tag, and added books by Lois McMaster Bujold, and also added authors Juliet Marillier and Patricia McKillip to the list of works. I modified the title from "Sword, Sorcery," to the present title.

On December 14th, 2009, I added a link to Bujold's Sharing Knife books.

* * * * *
October 28, 2013

I have discovered two relatively short articles entitled "Examining the four main foci for traditionalist impulses in fantasy and science fiction," which consider the main themes of "trationalist," i. e., sword and sorcery, fantasy, and discuss the continuing popularity of such fiction. They are found here and here

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree when you state that swords are more humane. They are much more painful! Marksmanship is equal to swordsmanship in terms of skill, I have to agree but to use a gun in a fight and survive requires something far and above simple skill: Reaction speed. If you don't recognize the hostile target, aim and pull the trigger in the .5s that pass between you two first, you will die. Reactionary speed is part innate instinct and mostly skill bore in through many hours of practice. Indeed, guns are faster are more humane. You can still walk away with all your limbs in a gun fight.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Anonymous. There is truth in what you say. However, there is more than one type of gun, and artillery, even, as I understand it, rather primitive artillery, could be used to blast away at people the gunners could never see, including innocent non-combatants and animals. No weapons are without consequences. That's why they are used.