Science Fiction Studies

# 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 producers:

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 to read.7

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 glossaries.8

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 surrealist intrusions.

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 the genre.

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 unrolled.

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." [p 88]

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 Howard's characters.

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 or prostitution.

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 "heroics."13

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 each other:

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 from it....

...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 flow."26

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 offered instead.

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" and "Terra-Pocket-books."

Space prevents a full listing of book titles in this article; "Fantasy" with a capital letter is used for the literary genre.

2. Andrzej Zgorzelski, "The Types of a Presented World in Fantastic Literature," Problems of Literary Genres 10, ii(1968):120.

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 German).

8. Most thoroughly in Tolkien, who in his glossary expounds concepts from the language of his fantasy world and from its history.

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.

16. Ibid.

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 Hogarth.

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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