# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978
Hans Joachim Alpers
Loincloth, Double Ax, and Magic: "Heroic
Fantasy" and Related Genres
Translated by Robert Plank; edited by D.S.
"Heroic Fantasy" (hereafter HF), also known as the literature of
"sword and sorcery," is usually marketed as SF, or as "science
fantasy," or simply as "fantasy," but it should be regarded as
merely a part — and not a very representative part — of these genres. As
space is too limited for comprehensive treatment, only certain aspects will be
considered here. A number of interesting cross connections cannot be traced,
such as the relationship of HF to comics — especially super-hero comics — or
to the horror story. The subliminal sexuality of HF can only be mentioned in
passing. The striking preference for serial heroes in HF should be examined in
the context of the problem of the serial in "popular literature."
In West Germany, HF is published nowadays chiefly in the form of pocket
books, by such publishers as Moewig, Heyne, and Ullstein. Moewig started a
series of booklets, but had to discontinue it. Beyond establishing an inventory
and the beginnings of a classification, I have been particularly interested in
the societal component. I have therefore stressed verifiability and recent
literature, though it is often cumbersome to check "popular
literature." Most of the material considered here has been published in
West Germany and is still on the market.
1. The Development of Fantastic "Popular Literature." The
physical and social sciences have over the course of thousands of years made
observations, postulated laws governing phenomena, confirmed such laws by
experiments, and finally developed comprehensive theories from a group of laws.
The mythical and magical explanations of earlier generations have in this
process been increasingly refuted and pushed into the background.
The capitalistic system, however, involves contradiction, first, between the
available information and the failure to apply it on the one hand; second,
between its application and its remystification through mechanisms of alienation
in the organization of the spread of knowledge and of societal labor, as well as
through psychic misery because of performance pressure, impoverishment of
contacts, existential anxiety, isolation, and internalization of societal
deficiencies. The result is that mythical and magical ideas continue to exist.
"Popular literature" serves such needs to escape into worlds whose
structure is simple while its backgrounds are complicated and mystical or magic,
and in which a strength and ability to assert himself are imputed to the reader
which he does not possess in reality. This may for the moment serve as an
explanation why HF must be seen within the social matrix and not in isolation as
a discrete body of literature.
Looked at historically, certain structures and elements of the HF plots can
be traced far back into the literature from earlier centuries. Development here
is often parallel with that of SF or identical with it, but it goes back farther
and deeper since the mythico-magic motifs in HF emerge less disguised. It is
true, though, of both SF and HF that as literature, as intellectual
manifestations, and within the history of ideas, they are regressions which in
the mass of their productions fall back way behind earlier stages of
development. In spite of its taking motifs from the realms of myth, HF is
regressive SF, while SF can (among other things) be considered as regressive
utopia. SF motifs in a regressed form can be found in the content of HF as
clearly as in the distribution, where HF always rides piggy-back on SF.1
As Andrzej Zgorzelski states, it is a mark of "romantic" fantasy
that it creates an atmosphere of helplessness by constructing dimensions in
which the acting human being seems microscopically small while unknown forces
and powers appear gigantic. Scrutiny of Ray Bradbury's story "The
Wind" led him, beyond this, to the finding that such fantasy aims at
presenting a metaphysical idea, i.e. not a romantic observation of man but a
romantic association of man with a universe of unknown powers.2
The metaphysical idea is sometimes derived from a larger system such as a
religion — contemporary or archaic — but even then it is usually reduced to
some of its concretizations (specters, angels, gods, rites, concepts of the
Beyond). These concretizations, whether or not derived from a coherent system of
ideas, are composed of arbitrary details of reality, deformed into fantasy.3
A ten-centimeter long lizard can thus become a ten-meter long fire-spitting
dragon, a stone idol an actual demon, a hurricane a thinking entity. Witches'
brews, magic wands, incantations, gods and demons are in this transformation for
the most part projections of functions which can also be accomplished in reality
through labor and means of production. Today's authors of "Fantasy"
and their products are therefore to be evaluated differently from those of
earlier centuries. Though fantasy and fantastic literature never had a special
value as instruments of enlightenment, still many fantastic constructions could
appear more legitimate in a bewildering, inexplicable world than their
successors can today. Thus, demonically distorted Jekyll-Hyde experiments could
in their way approach the procedures of later psychoanalysis; and identifying a
storm with a supernatural being is acceptable as long as there was no
understanding of the mechanism of warm air rising and exerting suction on
neighboring layers of air. However, to view a storm still today, against better
knowledge, as a living being means to demonize our understanding of nature, to
promote obscurantism, to dig up the old pagan gods in the face of problems
capable of solution by reason and social change. Behind this is the yearning of
the petty bourgeois to become independent of the productive forces, to have
roasted geese fly into his mouth through a magic formula — without workers and
factories — and to unravel the web of hierarchy (because it seems so
complicated) in sado-masochistic style through inviolable leaders and gods.
Lin Carter, the American Fantasy fan who (like his German counterpart Hubert
Strassl) also works as author and editor, makes Fantasy originate with the Gilgamesh
epic, then ransacks classical literature without skipping anything of rank and
name, be it Homer, Virgil, Malory, Milton, or Ariosto, lists Beowulf, Vathek,
and Alice in Wonderland, and finally pushes on to such authors as William
Morris, Lord Dunsany, and E.E. Eddison.4 In 1894 Morris is said to
have created in The Wood Beyond the World a seminal work of modern
Fantasy, while the writings of Dunsany, Eddison, James Branch Cabell, and later
J.R.R. Tolkien, are high spots of the genre — but this can only be truly said
if we focus on those aspects that mark the road to HF. The broader and more
important stream of fantastic literature in America (Poe, Bierce, Hawthorne,
Twain) cannot even be casually considered in this study; but it is from these,
and especially from the world of myth and fairy tales, that the topoi of
HF are largely derived.
2. The Placing of HF and Related Genres. The following attempts a
taxonomy of HF contents. In order not to make it too unwieldy, not all
combinations of historical novel, chivalric romance, weird fiction, fantastic
literature, and SF that are possible in the field will be listed. Also, HF
itself can only be divided into main groups. Some works, such as Michael
Moorcock's "Runestaff" cycle, are in any case difficult to place, since
here a great variety of components flow into each other (it has a strong mark of
fantasy, but also historic elements of a fictitious Middle Ages, a use of
mysterious machines, etc.). It is similar to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings,
not to be considered here further since — although one of the most popular
works of the genre — it is not highly representative; it has also been
sufficiently covered in secondary literature.5
2.1. HF and SF — Definitions and Boundaries. The following manifestos
about HF are by authors of the genre and are in a sense the sales talk of its
We call a story Sword & Sorcery when it is an action tale, derived from
the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land, age or world
of the author's invention — a milieu in which magic actually works and the
gods are real — a story, moreover, which pits a stalwart warrior in direct
conflict with the forces of supernatural evil.6
The main characteristic of HF adventure is that the author wishes above all
to entertain the reader, not to educate him or convince him of anything. The
reader escapes from his everyday life into a more glamorous world, where all men
are powerful, all women beautiful, all problems simple, and all lives full of
adventure. It is the sort of literature that — if well written — is most fun
Any number of such pronouncements are found on the back covers and in the
prefaces of HF — this genre still needs (especially in West Germany, but in
America, too) to congratulate the reader on his decision to buy it. Other
striking external habits are the appending of maps, illustrations, and
We shall see later what is and what is not correct in the above definitions;
meanwhile they will do for a start. The crucial difference between SF and HF is
that SF assumptions for alien worlds or for the future do not contradict the
present state of knowledge or, if they do, formally dispose of the contradiction
— e.g., speed faster than light — with pseudoscientific explanations; while
HF, as a branch of Fantasy, makes assumptions which disregard scientific
knowledge or contradict it in frankly unscientific ways. On the one side,
speculation; on the other, irrationality. It is also true of Fantasy, however,
that the system must be logically coherent within itself: there is no room for
A first superficial impression could be that the differences between SF and
HF are at best academically relevant. A Fantasy author has a wizard transpose
people into another dimension, an SF author can write the same story word by
word, just replacing the wizard by a scientist with his machine. However, the
difference is not just of academic relevance. It is in no wise merely a
matter of taste whether in the age of industrial capitalism a rationally based
machine is presented as a comprehensible mechanism or as the seat of a god. The
problem was already dealt with in the 19th century, by H.G. Wells in "The
Lord of the Dynamos," where a superstitious black African thinks he has
discovered a deity in the generators that produce electricity. And Wells also
demonstrated the barbaric consequences of mystifying the concepts accessible to
reason: human sacrifices to the fetish.
SF, with all its regressions that result from its operating within the
framework of capitalism, contains in principle the germs of revolt and change,
while HF defends rigid structures of dream worlds, especially those that have
their roots in long obsolete types of society, those based on feudalism or
slavery. SF is open to the description of a socialist future and even to
propaganda for it; Fantasy can take a stand for contents that at least
are not obstacles in the way of social progress; but HF cannot be reconciled
with either democracy or socialism. The anticipations of a coming social order,
against which the existing order fights, of course, tooth and nail, can be
integrated into SF;9 HF, however, orients itself by the anachronistic
remnants of past epochs that have been preserved in the cultural superstructure.
HF embodies not merely anti-socialism, but also reactionary hostility against
bourgeois democracy and industrial capitalism. Since, however, HF ideologies
help given interests to prevail in our society, and since anti-industrial
tendencies, (in contrast to anti-democratic ones) cannot break through as they
have no chance to be realized, HF is treated tolerantly by capitalist interests,
and as far as certain capitalist groups are concerned, perhaps with benevolence.
2.2. Science Fantasy. Science fantasy emerged before and alongside SF,
for the most part as the "other face" of SF which so flaunted its
scientific (or pseudo-scientific) character. When we recall SF stories of the
1920s with sometimes pages devoted to the derivation of mathematical formulas,
we cannot be surprised that the pendulum swung to the other extreme: Science
Fantasy arose, with little science and much fantasy. Transitions between
SF, HF and Science Fantasy are fluid; but we do well to hold on to the
distinguishing characteristic that Science Fantasy, while using the repertoire
of SF — spaceships, modern instruments and weapons — also stages planetary
adventures with magic-ritual cults. The notion of the "sense of
wonder," a shibboleth of SF fans, is derived primarily from this aspect of
Science Fantasy — mysterious cultures with beautiful princesses, somber
priests, magic jewels. HF starts at the same level. The boundary line would,
taking a cue from the term itself, be anchored in the term "heroic."
Where a Science Fantasy adventure crystalizes into a hero who, forgoing modern
technology, sword in hand, tumbles from one combat to the next; where SF
elements are perhaps allowed to initiate the plot, but play hardly any role
later on: there the border of HF has already been crossed.
E.R. Burroughs's novels of Mars and Venus should in my opinion be counted as
Science Fantasy rather than HF, because in the course of its action further SF
elements (radium guns, aerial ships, etc.) occur. The ambience and the
characterization of the hero, though, come very close to HF.
Most novels by Andre Norton belong to Science Fantasy. They usually follow
the same cliché: one or two SF elements — a marooned space traveler,
telepathy, and such — combine with plenty of jungle and traditionally noble
savages.10 Leigh Brackett, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Marion Zimmer
Bradley, Philip José Farmer, Henry Kuttner, Otis Adelbert Kline, C.L. Moore,
Robert Moore Williams, Murray Leinster, E.C. Tubb, and many others should be
listed here, some with their main work, others with scattered contributions to
One of the most important transitions to HF is L.S. de Camp's
"Krishna" cycle (The Continent Maker, US 1953; The Tower of
Zanid, US 1958; The Search for Zei, US 1962; The Hand of Zei,
US 1963). The "Harold Shea" stories by de Camp and Fletcher Pratt,
with their "scientific" explanations of magic and their visits to
mythical worlds also belong here (The Incomplete Enchanter, US 1942; The
Castle of Iron, US 1950; The Wall of Serpents, US 1960). So does,
from the weird fiction side, Clark Ashton Smith, who partakes of the horror-story
as well as of the historic-fantastic adventure novel in the vein of Beckford's Vathek
or of Rider Haggard. Many of his stories (from Out of Space and Time, US
1942, to Poseidonia, US 1973) are set on imaginary continents like
Atlantis or Hyperborea, in the fictitious medieval country Maleant, on the
future continent Zothique, or on Ziccarph, the planet ruled by magic.
Smith weaves horror, SF, and fantasy into a skein beyond disentanglement. It
is different with H.P. Lovecraft: elements of SF are present in his "Cthulhu"
horror stories, but they do not influence events significantly. The encroachment
of powerful beings from an ancient race is the theme, and it remains relatively
irrelevant whether they rise up from the Earth or approach from the cosmos. The
"Cthulhu" stories were continued after Lovecraft's death by August
Derleth, C.A. Smith, and other writers.
The two Burroughs cycles mentioned initially will be briefly presented here
as paradigms. John Carter's Mars adventures focus on an American suddenly
transposed to Mars who fights pirates, traitors, giant apes, and other enemies,
mostly tracking the abductors of the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris. Things are
not too different in the Venus cycle. Carson, an American, builds a spaceship,
flies to Venus, throws himself into the fight for the princess Duare, and has to
hold his own against fish-men, plant-men, and other bellicose foes. Here, too,
the bride and her beau are alternately captured and liberated. Those alien
beings, technical gimmicks of all sorts, flying boats, radium guns, the crystal
core of a temple, land battleships, a city of scientists, and other SF elements
are only props within the adventuresome cloak-and-dagger action, but they do
help decisively to structure the novels. The stories are a massive defense of
class rule, they give it a partial rationale, in the genetic superiority of the
aristocracy, they take a stand against the "mob" and its revolts, and
preach racism and an authoritarian fuehrer principle — a fitting
transition to my next section.
3.1 HF with SF Elements. The fact that HF has attached itself to SF is
probably the outstanding reason for its drawing such a large portion of its
legitimation from the repertoire of SF. It may be of some significance, too,
that some authors would like to build a bridge over which the reader can flee
into the fantasy world — i.e., a focus of identification is created in a
character who is torn from the reader's environment, and who in his stead visits
the alien world. The technique of SF is of course especially capable of
camouflaging this process. But, be it SF, be if Fantasy with a magician: the
connection is made, the dream world has been reached, the yarn of HF can be
Robert E. Howard has rarely used this trick, probably because he found it
hard to imagine that people from our civilization would be able to hold their
own in his beloved barbaric worlds. He made one exception, though — shortly
before, in 1936, at the age of only thirty, he put a bullet through his head:
the hero of Almuric (US 1964), Esau Cairn, a man from Earth, makes good
on a barbaric planet. But in contrast to the petty-bourgeois ideology which
would like to see the average petty-bourgeois capable of performing any heroic
deed whatever, Cairn is already marked as an outsider in our society. He is a
suitable hero for Howard just because he is persecuted in civilization — strong
as a bear and an impulsive killer; not a true exception after all:
Many men are born outside their century; Esau Cairn was born outside his
epoch.... He was primitive in his passions, with a gusty temper and a courage
inferior to none of this planet.... Esau Cairn was, in short, a freak — a man
whose physical body and mental bent leaned back to the primordial. [§1]
A prime specimen of breeding, he "came of a race whose characteristics
were inclined toward violence, and whose traditions were of war and feud and
battle against man and nature" (§1). Thus, when his "clenched fist
... broke Blaine's skull like an eggshell and stretched him lifeless on the
floor," because Cairn for once "forgot to control his powers"
(§1) he was forced to flee to the planet Almuric where he really lived it up
against uncounted enemies — human, winged, or beasts:
"Now I was free to hurl all my mental and physical powers into the
untamed struggle for existence, and I knew such zest and freedom as I had
never dreamed of." [p 26]
"Ears split, noses crumpled and teeth splintered under the crushing
impact of my iron-hard fists, and the yells of the wounded were music to my
battered ears." [p 39]
"Blindly I lashed out and upward, feeling my sword edge meet tangible
substance. A warm liquid spurted along my arm, and with another terrible roar,
this time more of pain than of rage, the invisible monster shambled away
shaking the earth with its tread, dimming the shrieking wind with its
bellowing." [p 87]
"There was a whirl of strokes and parries, a brief clanging of steel;
then my sword-point sank under his heart and stood out behind his back."
Nevertheless, compared to Conan, Almuric is relatively less
bloody, richer in fantasy elements, and even a tiny bit engaged on the side of
the oppressed.12 While the mercenary Conan helps nobody but himself
or at most the woman with whom he wants to spend the night, Cairn unites the
natives to fight their oppressors, the winged man-eating Yagas. He destroys the
structures of the Fantasy world Almuric: an exception within HF which makes the
work unsuitable for further instalments. Other than that we find the favorite
clichés of HF throughout: heroic mountains of muscle in loincloth, sword or
double ax, and tender beautiful females — long silky hair black as the night,
white skin, half wild antelope and half shy doe, sensuous pet for the night and
willing drudge for the kitchen labor....
Alan Burt Akers's "Scorpio" novels (beginning with Transit to
Scorpio, US 1972) and Lin Carter's "Green Star" ones (beginning
with Under the Green Star, US 1972) are of more recent vintage but
designed like Burroughs' potboilers. Akers takes his Napoleonic naval officer
Dray Prescot from adventure to adventure on the planet Kregen; Carter has a
crippled Earthman slip into the body of the hero Chong on the "Green
Star." These heroes temporarily resume their earthly existence, which also
happens to John Carter in the stories by Burroughs, who may have borrowed the
idea from Winsor McCay's comic strip Little Nemo where daybreak forces the
little dreamer back into his bed. John Norman's Tarl Cabot in the numerous
"Gor" novels (beginning with Tarnsman of Gor, US 1966), who
also comes from Earth, lasts longer in his new environment. The three cycles
have much in common, above all the heroes' experiencing plenty of adventure in
archaic-fantastic cultures and eventually achieving "heroic" deeds
there, but are not as totally fixated on heroic fuehrer figures as are
The Fantasy structure here evolves a life of its own, in Akers' and Norman's
works more so than in Carter's. In Norman's and Akers' novels you feel in the
midst of the barbaric ambience also some influence of technology, of a higher
civilization. Priest Kings of Gor, for instance, almost steps out of the
frame of the genre to become an SF novel with extraterrestrials who lead a
highly technological life underground and engage in intrigues more than battles
for the continued existence of their ant-like race-life. These SF elements,
nevertheless, are not sufficiently marked to classify these cycles as Scientific
Fantasy. The limelight, after all, is on musclemen, exceedingly beautiful women
(by preference queens, princesses, daughters of other VIPS — if we are to
believe the HF writers, time and space are full of daughters of royalty waiting
for true he-men from among us), savages, amazons, slaves and the slave trade,
sword duels and wars, naval battles, galleys, tree-men, gods, cults, blood,
broken heads and cut-off limbs: "Blood made the floor slippery"
(Akers, op. cit., p. 126).
It is striking how often the hero's nakedness is stressed, and the sexual
symbolism of the endless drilling and piercing cannot be overlooked. Plain
copulation on the other hand is also frequent, especially in the "Gor"
cycle, which also shows the peculiarity that the hero develops: he increasingly
internalizes the laws of his new homeland, thus becoming as ruthless,
power-hungry, and narrow-minded as those around him. In any event, sexuality in
HF is hardly liberating. It stems from the pasha mentality and the rape
fantasies of frustrated petty-bourgeois. Women are used as consumer goods to be
thrown away after service, which here often means turning them over to slavery
Carter's "Green Star" novels come perhaps nearer to Science Fantasy
than the others, especially as the author claims to have tried to write in the
manner of Burroughs; he thinks of his potboilers as "love letters"
addressed to the master. But Carter, HF fan and Conan co-author, also
places his emphases so that the outcome is less Fantasy than
Andre Norton's "Witch World" cycle (Witch World, US 1963,
and many other volumes) belongs, with some reservations, into the same sub-group
of HF. Strictly speaking only the first volume strikes an SF note, when an ex-US
Army colonel gets to the Witch World. The subsequent novels are largely detached
from the hero and depict exclusively the manifold fights and intrigues between
witches, sorcerers, and demons. The descendants of the former hero have been
promoted to main characters. The "witches," incidentally, train their
talents to develop such capabilities as hypnosis, clairvoyance, and telepathy
with the help of jewels. They lead a matriarchal life and are descended from an
"ancient race." The indubitable popularity of Norton's novels poses a
riddle: superficial and poorly written, they offer neither suspense nor
imagination, though plenty of corny spiritual nobility and beautiful bodies.
What makes them fascinating is probably their constantly flaunted naiveness,
their mixture of plain lack of understanding and a simple soul.
In West Germany, Hugh Walker (pseudonym of Hubert Strassl) has so far written
two Magira novels.14 They grew out of a board-game that he
played for eight years with his buddies at the conventions of FOLLOW, a German-Austrian
fan club that publishes fanzines and at its meetings arranges, among other
affairs, tournaments with wooden swords: "Many battles have taken place and
become history," he notes proudly, referring to this board game.15
His novels present a player who gets into the world of his Magira figures and
quaffs a new brew of the old HF mixture that Strassl has consumed so long and so
enthusiastically: priests, gods, beautiful women, torture, whores, double-edged
swords, wrestling for power: "But it is not the players alone who wrestle,
or the kings — other mysterious powers take part also."16
Everything, according to Strassi, has to obey the rules of that game,
"which must be played, so that a world may run its course, steered by the
logic of reason unhampered by compassion or conscience."17 Such
an obsessive idea, translated into HF, of the nature of man, society,
environment, and the laws governing them, is just what most fascinates the petty
bourgeois: to be allowed to play fate, to throw the dice himself, yet in the
same old power structures "unhampered by compassion or conscience."
Strassl was also the initiator of the so far only series of fantasy booklets
in West Germany, Dragon, Soehne von Atlantis (Restatt: Pabel Verlag, 1973-4,
55 booklets), written, in addition to him, by the Perry Rhodan authors
Voltz, Kneifel, Vlcek, Darlton, and Terrid. There they had themselves a ball
writing about those Atlantic braves in a new fantasy-world where the good and
the evil hack each other to pieces.18
3.2. HF with Historical and Realistic Moments. This subgroup is invaded
by elements of the adventure romances and the novels of chivalry and piracy. Hal
Foster's comic series Prince Valiant undoubtedly belongs here, with its
heroic swordsmen, medieval world embellished by fictitious props, and
occasionally a little fantasy in the shape of sorcerers, giants, dragons, or a
magic weapon. The reason I mention this work here is that its distribution far
surpasses that of traditional HF and that its success may have made it a model,
somewhat like Burroughs' Tarzan, for new endeavors in this mode. The
first installments of the Tarzan series appeared in 1912; it was by far
Burroughs' greatest success and was also marketed in the media of film, TV, and
comics.19 Burroughs has thus not influenced the HF genre only through
his Mars and Venus novels, but even more so through Tarzan. The hero, a
descendant of an English lord raised among apes, wears loincloth and muscles,
goes through adventures in African gold cities, battles beast-men. Not to be
forgotten: even here the hero occasionally returns to civilization and leads —
as his alter ego, so to speak — an entirely normal life, until new adventures
lure him away.
Solomon Kane is another of R.E. Howard's figures, appearing in various short
stories (all collected in Red Shadows, US 1968): Howard's first serial
hero altogether. The action, set in about the 16th century, is for some
stretches nothing but an especially bloody cloak-and-dagger adventure, with
skulls being slit and bellies being ripped open in bloody profusion. Some
ingredients from Fantasy and especially from weird fiction are added: magic,
cults, spirits. The motivation supplied is the desire to avenge somebody or
something: a good part for Charles Bronson.
Bran Mak Morn is likewise a Howard hero, this time a leader of the Picts who
takes to the field primarily against the Romans. Not satisfied with one, Howard
adds a second barbaric serial hero in one Bran Mak Morn story: Kull of Atlantis,
transposed from the past to the Picts, intervenes in the battle (stories about
both are collected in Skull-Face and Others, US 1968). Admixture as
before; cults, magic, and much cruelty. However, in the Bran Mak Morn and
Solomon Kane adventures the fantastic elements in their monotonous repetition
feel rather like superficial decor: here a cliche demanded its due. The
following poem illustrates nicely the feel for "heroic" history that
lurks behind such adventures:
Wolf on the height
Mocking the night;
Slow comes the light
Of a nation's new dawn.
Shadow hordes massed
Out of the past.
Fame that shall last
Strides on and on.
Over the vale
Thunders the gale
Bearing the tale
Of a nation up-lifted.
Flee, wolf and kite!
Fame that is bright.20
It all is introduced with the sentence: "Hail to the
uplifter! I see the Pictish nation striding upward toward the new light!"
Michael Moorcock's ideas in the "Runestaff" cycle
(beginning with Sword of the Dawn, US 1968) and in the "Elric of
Melnibone" adventures are more fantastic. Elric is almost an anti-hero: an
albino whom nobody likes, a sort of Eternal Jew who has outlived his era and
must wander through the world as a sinister figure, fatefully attached to his
sword "Stormbringer," which so thirsts for blood and souls that it
forces him again and again to kill his best friends. The Runestaff cycle is set
in a fictitious Middle Ages where peculiar things go on. "Londra" is
the capital of a "Dark Empire" that threatens to engulf all Europe.
Oracles and prophecies are rampant. The mood is at times reminiscent of Tolkien,
though Moorcock doesn't have Tolkien's pedantic genius and long breath. There
are strange magic-machines, flying devices, giant birds trained to carry you
through the air, fantastic weapons — all the gadgets are combined of science
and magic — plus a whole crew of sorcerers and strange creatures. Dorian
Hawkmoon, made Knight of the Runestaff, tackles the evil powers and in the first
volume gets a jewel implanted in his cranium by which the enemy can control and
kill him. Bizarre ideas of this sort set Moorcock apart from the rest of the
bloody mishmash, though he, like others, is neither able nor willing to escape
the laws of the genre. It seems crazy, but he actually manages to sic armies on
each other with all sorts of fantastic gadgets and then, at the climax, to
forget it all and to let the protagonists with their ludicrous swords butcher
Hawkmoon found a fresh horse and led the advance, yelling
wildly as he chopped about him, striking heads from necks, limbs from torsos,
like apples from the bough. His body was covered from head to foot in the blood
of the slain...but he ignored it all as the bloodlust seized him and he killed
man after man.21
This is what in the end HF always comes to: skulls are split,
bones splintered, bodies impaled and ripped open, heads cut off, women raped —
the ritual of the genre, like the showdown in the Western. This is what Strassl
means when he writes, with feeling: "Sweat, blood, tragedy and fury and
disappointment and horror: this is fantastic realism."22 And
this must be what Moorcock had in mind when he proclaimed: "The essential
is what the chosen material is used for, not the material itself."23
What else could he have meant?
3.3. Hardcore HF. Three cycles will be considered in
this last subgroup: "Conan" by R.E. Howard, Lin Carter, and L.S. de
Camp (a dozen volumes beginning with Conan the Conqueror, US 1950):
"Brak the Barbarian" by John Jakes (beginning with a novel of the same
title, US 1968); and the "Swords" cycle by Fritz Leiber (beginning
with Two Sought Adventure, US 1957). They are thematically more closely
related to each other than other HF serials, though their authors wanted them to
be as far apart in time and space as possible. Leiber's Fantasy world Nehwon is
vaguely located somewhere in another time and dimension; Brak's planet is in a
parallel universe; Conan is at home in the "hyborian" age of Earth.
The fact, however, is that localization matters little — even less so than in
the cycles dealt with so far. Indeed, pertinent references are found but here
and there in a preface or on a cover. All that matters is that here we have
"barbaric" worlds beyond intervention; they are static, vegetating
along in a haze, as an always available background for the glamorous exploits of
the heroes: adventurers who push money, gold, jewels, royal thrones and
beautiful women back and forth with the changing fortunes of war, but who
otherwise change nothing, move nothing. Gods and demons are challenged and
fought, but never vanquished for good. The Conan books have reached a total of
over 3 million copies in America and are being eagerly reprinted in West
Germany. Leiber's "Swords" cycle is scarcely less popular.
John Jakes is a bit of a poor relation in this company,
perhaps because he isn't quite as bloody as Howard, nor as cunning as Leiber.
Jakes's Brak the Barbarian, like Moorcock's heroes, chases a mysterious destiny,
here the lure of Golden Khurdisan, a far-away land he will hardly reach before
his author's death. It is reported that Jakes has already written the end of the
adventure and sealed it for posterity. His specialty is a hostility against
civilization that would have pleased Howard. His uncomplicated barbarian bestirs
himself only reluctantly to vanquish the cities between himself and his goal,
grapples with demons and their cohorts who henceforth make his life miserable,
wanting to keep him from reaching Golden Khurdisan. And this is about it, for
the rest is nothing but the well-known battles, women, thieves, whores,
monsters, and cults, always with Yob-Hagoth and his pack breathing down his
neck. And — but of course:
Nestor's tongue protruded.
His eyes bulged. Total agony burned in his gaze as the broadsword-tip slashed
through his throat front to back....
He fell straight onto Brak's
blade. The point entered his throat just behind the jawbone and finally
jarred, scraping, on the back of the skull.
Huz al Hussayn hung there.
The curved sword dropped from his fingers. His legs kicked, thrashed. With his
head impaled yet still alive, he stared downward at Brak. His eyes flashed a
final horrific disbelief. His tongue shot out, purpling. And, like a boar on a
spit, he died.24
Leiber's "Swords" cycle depicts the adventures of
the swordsmen Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. These two friends — a contrasting pair,
the tall Northerner with his long sword, the short Southerner with his foil —
muddle through the world Nehwon and act chiefly in the city Lankhmar. Sometimes
they seem a bit stilted and like unworldly impoverished noblemen, and their
dialog can be amusing enough; it is also positive that their strength is in
their friendship and cooperation. But though the thieves' guild makes war on
them, they seem themselves hardboiled thieves and robbers while they fight
wizards and brigades of rats, often as mercenaries. Leiber must be given credit
for looking at his job with not quite so relentless a sense of mission as many
of his colleagues. "The Two Best Thieves of Lankhmar" (in Swords
Against Wizardry) and other shorter stories can be quite tolerable, but the
novels are dull and smell of decay, and in spite of the suave maxims in the end
everything runs on the old track, though this isn't always immediately visible.
Leiber can afford once in a while to smuggle in a story about nothing worse than
small-time trickery, or even depict the Grim Reaper trying in vain to catch the
heroes. But what must come comes, like the Amen after the sermon: the genre gets
its due — cool girls and hot deaths:
he stroked out almost negligently and he felt and heard his
ax crunch halfway through a head. He saw a comely blond youth, now most sadly
dead and his comeliness rather spoiled by Fafhrd's arm which still stood in
the great wound it had made. A fair hand opened and the sword it had held fell
...and then shoulder his reward (preferably a shapely
maiden with a bag of gold in her either hand)....
It was as if he had tossed up a ball, then batted it.
Shooting forward like a bolt fired point-blank from a sinewy catapult it
splattered the chair and the Mouser with his brain....
There were two thrusts, both lightning-like, the first a
feint at the belly, the second a slicing stab that sheared through the throat
to the spine.25
I have called this sub-group of HF "hardcore"
because it manifests with greatest clarity the true center of the genre: this is
what many authors aim at (though out of respect for the host genres SF and
Fantasy they cannot always carry it through), here is what HF fans see as the
ideal: naked ideology transformed into literature, shucking as much as feasible
all details suspect of having any truck with reality or reason. The escape into
the dreamworld is replaced by a state of intoxication with barbarism.
King of the genre is therefore Howard's Conan. What
elsewhere dribbles, flows here. Plundering and murdering, Conan the mercenary
bestrides his world. He "splits heads," "runs his sword into the
belly," "cuts limbs off," "rams his spear into the
body," "smashes skulls," "bursts" them, "severs
heads," "drives his blade into the enemy's chest," "drives
his blade into the back with such force that the point slips out of the
chest" — all for money; he is the venal handyman of any ruler for any
goal. Reduced to sword and phallus, he is the perfect barbarian. When he happens
not to be killing people for the moment, he fights giant apes, ice giants,
corpse-devouring demons, gods, vampires, and other monsters. Treason at one time
gets him fixed to a magnetic column while from its top a clump of protoplasm
slowly lowers itself, smacking its lips as it were. Another time he kills a
giant snake and a monster in human shape and promises the girl with whom he
wants to sleep to burn down a city as a reward. On another occasion he helps a
queen against a lustful sorcerer and is royally rewarded: she permits him to
copulate with her on the altar. Then again he vanquishes a man-eating monster
with a giant snout and frees his girl from the clutches of a rival who wanted to
have her scourged and see her blood flow.
Conan makes no bones about his opinion on civilization: it is
decadence, sissiness, cowardice, craftiness, and falsehood. The inhabitants of
cities use perfume, they run around in "dandified" clothes, they
indulge in "black arts," their cities are dens of crime and vice. On a
particularly undesirable monster he passes the judgment (a propos of nothing)
that such a creature "could only be the product of an overbred
civilization." And men and women worth their salt are, like Conan himself,
white: "it was sufficient for him that her skin was white.... I am not a
common woman, you can see it by my skin, which is white." Blacks are
cannibals and/or oversexed. The rest of the scoundrels have crooked noses, a
stealthy step, or yellow skin. As for Conan, women and kingdoms come and go; he
retains his rough but hearty tone: "By Crom, if you don't hurry, blood will
4. On the Ideology of HF. Having presented
representative specimens, I shall now try to delineate the basic patterns of HF
and its frame.
"Plausibility and reality are not as important as all
that. What matters is, rather, the adventure, the free flow of the imagination,
and characters of flesh and blood that allow us to empathize."21
There remains the question: what is being glorified? The answer could be,
physical strength (as with the barbarians Conan and Brak); but this would leave
out figures like Leiber's Grey Mouser and Moorcock's Elric. Strassl himself
states elsewhere what all heroes of HF have in common: a "magic-mystic
understanding of the world"; their authors are united in
"mystification" and in eliminating "cold reason."28
A second characteristic of HF is a specific attitude to
violence, i.e. to oppressing and killing human beings: it is practiced not only
by villains, but primarily by the heroes. Moorcock's Elric is relatively
squeamish; he warns his friends of his baleful sword and even half-heartedly
tries to resist his fate (in vain, of course) before he massacres them. The
other heroes of HF have scarcely any inhibition; they kill for trivial reasons,
indiscriminately and wholesale.
The third mark of HF is fatalism, coupled with the static
character of the Fantasy worlds, at least in the serials. The structures of
those barbaric worlds are virtually never questioned. and even when somebody
gets individually rebellious he strikingly often limits himself to a calculated
commitment for the sake of personal advantage (gold, power, women). The heroes
are rather frequently limned as highwaymen, soldiers of fortune, or mercenaries.
The fourth characteristic is an uncompromising commitment to
the ideology of the power of man over man. The heroes find themselves often
enough in the role of the slave, the downtrodden, tortured, persecuted, but they
accept the fact that such a hierarchical order exists and the roles it entails.
Since they — through a stroke of luck and/or their own skill — change into
other roles, up to army commanders and kings, they propagate the ideology that
the system does not lack mobility: each plays the role that is proper for him.
"The Fantasy is by dreamers for dreamers"; it is "magic
incantation";29 it is rapturous removal from the "grey
misery of daily life," the petty-bourgeois desire to be no longer "a
cog in the wheel of a mighty machine, as for example our civilization, but to
have in his own hands the power to do something great without first being
processed by the flattening mechanism of a bureaucracy."30
HF thrives on the reader's latent readiness to change his
unsatisfactory situation, but it simultaneously bars him from the crucial
insight that societal conditions determine the reader's situation and that they
can be changed by concerted action with others. Ersatz, surrogate actions are
The ideologies thereby propagated are: magic-mystic
understanding of the world, i.e. mystification of relationships that could be
grasped by the intellect; right of the stronger as the principle of societal
organization; glorification of violence, particularly killing; oppression of
women; emphasis on the racial superiority of the Nordic (Aryan) type; fatalism
toward hierarchic structures and their consequences, such as wars; the fuehrer
principle: the greatest butcher of them all shall determine our fate;
imperialistic policy; and anti-intellectualism.
What is, then, being glorified by HF? There is but one word
that sufficiently sums up all these ideological elements: fascism.
Parallels to German Fascism as a historic phenomenon (beyond
Fascist ideology in general) also emerge: during the Nazi era there was, as in
HF, a leaning towards irrational myths (world-ice doctrine, theory of the hollow
Earth, and the like); there were master races (Aryans, "polar men")
and the subhuman slaves (Southerners, "belt men"); the Siegfried
syndrome; the propaganda for return to medieval guilds and ranks — and the
barbarism of concentration camps and aggressive war.
The main task of fascism was to break the labor movement so
as to remove the obstacles in the way of restructuring, monopolization, and
profit maximization at the expense of the working people. HF might have the task
of providing ideological preparation for the road to a new fascism.
1. In the US, HF is often found in SF
magazines; in West Germany, HF novels and stories are published within SF
serials. The two indigenous HF series, the "Dragon" and
"Terra-Fantasy" pocket books, have sprung directly from the field of
SF: "Terra-Fantasy" branched off from the SF series "Terra Astra"
Space prevents a full listing of book titles
in this article; "Fantasy" with a capital letter is used for the
2. Andrzej Zgorzelski, "The Types of a
Presented World in Fantastic Literature," Problems of Literary Genres
3. Cf. László Urban, "Science Fiction
und Phantastik," Quarber Merkur #36 (1973):14ff.
4. Lin Carter, Imaginary Worlds: The Art of
Fantasy (US 1973).
5. It took the labor of decades, outside of
market pressures, to complete Lord of the Rings: it is much more careful,
better crafted, and also bulkier than comparable HF.
6. Lin Carter, introduction to Flashing
Swords No. 1 (US 1973).
7. L. Sprague de Camp, quoted without
indication of source by Hugh Walker in his preface to Andre Norton, Gefangene
der Daemonen (Witch World) (Rastatt, WG, 1974), p 7 (retranslated from the
8. Most thoroughly in Tolkien, who in his
glossary expounds concepts from the language of his fantasy world and from its
9. In practice, however, fascistoid and
reactionary traits are marked in the SF of the capitalistic countries;
technocratic attitudes impress us by contrast as "progressive."
10. Andre Norton (pseudonym of Alice Mary
Norton) is, along with L. Sprague de Camp, John Jakes, Lin Carter, Fritz Leiber,
Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, and Poul Anderson, a member of SAGA (The Swordsmen
and Sorcerers Guild of America, Ltd.), a clique that only admits
"selected" living HF authors.
11. Cf. H.J. Alpers, "Carson der
Stuermer — Zu Burroughs' Venus-Romanen," Science Fiction Times
(Bremerhaven) #122/23 (1971).
12. Almuric was published after
Howard's death, in an "adaptation" — i.e., presumably, completed
from fragmentary notes. It is therefore not necessarily representative of
Howard. The same is true of the later Conan stories, written by de Camp
and Lin Carter, allegedly following notes left by Howard.
13. Lin Carter is also the author of the
"barbarian adventure" series "Thongor" in 5 volumes,
beginning with The Wizard of Lemuria (US 1965).
14. Hugh Walker, Reiter in der Finsternis
(Rastatt, WG, 1975) and Das Heer der Finsternis (Rastatt, WG, 1975).
Strassl is also the very soul of the HF fan-club FOLLOW which he assiduously
advertises in the SF, HF, and horror serials published by Pabel for which he
writes and where he edits the "Terra-Fantasy" pocket books.
15. Hugh Walker, Preface to Reiter (see
note 14), p 9.
17. Ibid., p 72.
18. Cf. Kurt S. Denkena, "Dragon
oder 'Sein Ziel war es, die alte Ordnung wieder herzustellen'," Science
Fiction Times (Bremerhaven) #136(1975):11ff.
19. Thirty Tarzan volumes have been
published in the USA. The comics series has been published for decades in
continually new installments. Comics fans appreciate most those drawn by Burne
20. Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn (US
1969), pp 52-53.
21. Michael Moorcock, The Jewel in the
Skull (UK 1969), p 128.
22. Hugh Walker, Preface to Robert E. Howard, Degen
der Gerechtigkeit (Rastatt, WG, 1976).
23. Quoted from Hugh Walker's Preface to
Michael Moorcock, Ritter des schwarzen Juwels (The Jewel in the Skull) (Rastatt,
WG, 1975), p 9.
24. John Jakes, "When the Idols
Walked," Fantastic (Sept. 1964), pp 69 and 97.
25. The first three quotations from Swords
Against Wizardry (US 1968), pp 127, 105 and 144; the last quotation from Swords
Against Death (US 1970), p 42.
26. All quotes on Conan from H.J. Alpers,
"Conan Schlagetot," Science Fiction Times (Bremerhaven),
#122/23 (1971), p 18ff.
27. Hugh Walker, Preface to John Jakes, Schiff
der Seelen (Brak, the Barbarian) (Rastatt, WG, 1974), p 8.
28. Ibid., pp 7-8.
29. Hugh Walker, Preface to R.E. Howard, Raecher
der Verdammten (Rastatt, WG, 1976), p 7.
30. Hugh Walker, Preface to Andre Norton, Gefangene
(see note 7), p 8.
Heroic fantasy, also known as the literature of sword and
sorcery, is usually marketed as SF, science fantasy, or simply fantasy; but it
should be regarded as merely a part--and not a representative part--of these
genres. This essay cannot consider such broad issues as the relationship of HF to comics--especially
super-hero comics--or to the horror story; the subliminal sexuality of HF can be mentioned
just in passing. Aspects of HF that receive close consideration here include the
development of fantastic popular literature, and especially the placing of HF and related
genres (boundaries and definitions of HF and SF, HF with SF Elements, HF with historical
and realistic moments, hardcore HF). Finally, this essay examines the ideology of HF.
Among the writers considered: Lin Carter, L. Sprague De Camp, Andre Norton, J.R.R.
Tolkein, John Jakes, Michael Moorcock,. Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, and
Robert E. Howard.
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