Thoughts on the Enjoyment of Heroic Fantasy
with special reference to Robert E. Howard
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
I have a high expectation of the fiction I read. It must be inventive; the style must be polished & poetic; multi-leveled symbolism is nice, as well as irony; & while I'm rarely after character studies per se, I expect the characters to spring to life as whole human beings, not puppets dancing to some author's pipe. I like action, but not gratuitously strewn; it has to make sense & reflect the characters' attitudes & needs.
I have a sizable library & can reach to my left or right for a large body of translations from the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Hungarian, German, Yiddish, Russian, & several other languages that over the years have taken over at least a full shelf apiece, occasionally a whole case. Several bookcases consist of nineteenth century first editions. Here, too, are volumes upon volumes of lyric poetry from the ancient & medieval world up to the present century. Of British & American tomes, I'd hate to have to take an inventory.
Given this stupendous measure of tastefulness & knowledge, how can it be that my heart swoons when reading heroic fantasy?
The brightest critic, or author, or editor, or reader at large, may well be capable of pinpointing & expounding upon the weakness of this or that work of fiction. At the same time, even the most highbrow among the troops is liable to have "guilty pleasures," to have no greater reading joy than when immersed in worlds of Robert E. Howard, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, or E. E. "Doc" Smith, or something similarly pulpish & far removed from skillful perfection.
The hoary explanation is that "the golden age" of imaginative literature is twelve; & what we read at that age is what will be loved forever, no matter how mature our tastes become in other areas. Such an explanation is inadequate in my own case, & I suspect such pat truisms rarely hold much truth. I began reading horror fiction by age six, science fiction by age eight, & "grew" into fantasy at the ripe old age of twenty. What I read in between, as an adolescent, is something I cannot return to with nostalgic delight. At age twelve I was was stealing spy novels from the local Value Mart.
Heroic fantasy first struck a note of harmony in me as an adult. In some people, that harmony might be found in Harlequin Romance, or Holmesian mysteries. Such harmony might be discovered at any age. Since most people have reached a high reading ability by age twelve or never, chances are good that readers will indeed hit upon their own magic genre at this time. But being young & impressionable probably has less to do with this discovery than "the golden age is twelve" cliche immediately implies.
Whatever we prefer to read is connected to our lifelong experience. If our experience is varied, our reading tastes will be likewise. If our experience is narrow, we may stick to one limited area. Those who fixate on heroic fantasy to the exclusion of other books may indeed have done so because they found the genre at an impressionable age, or because their own lives weren't varied or evolving. But readers with far-ranging reading habits, who nevertheless hold a special place in their hearts for heroic fantasy well, it could be we love the form with good reason. A distillation of our lifelong attitudes & explorations may well find special expression in heroic fantasy.
Such a personal relationship with heroic fantasy isn't likely to be born of a direct parallel between life & fiction, since few heroic fantasy readers have had swashbuckling adventures. A very few have had direct adventures of the heroic kind. One of the more intellectual Conan fans I ever met was a Jesuit professor of navigation who had been a Navy SEAL in Viet Nam. His task was to bring back American captives from behind enemy lines. He survived shocking wounds, had seen more than one companion blown to pieces, & tramped horror-stricken through a village wherein every human being & farm animal lay dead from an unrecorded helicopter attack (not much chance the helicopter was anything but American). The only survivor in that village was a scrawny kitten which he brought back to base in his shirt & got his shirt filled with catshit when the kitten heard its next helicopter. This guy never suffered any of the post-traumatic stresses we so often hear about. The reason, I believe, for his having escaped aftershocks of the horror, was that his self-image was essentially heroical, & it is not surprising that copies of Conan paperbacks should pass from SEAL to SEAL until these books fell to pieces. Returning captured soldiers to safety was the sort of mission to preserve one's humanity & self-respect, unlike the common soldier's inexplicable directive to kill guys with Asian faces, the logical extension being to kill entire villages of families. Be that as it may, my Jesuit friend was an exception, & the comparison between the heroic fantasy reader's life & reading tastes is apt to be more along the lines of an allegorical comparison, much as Pan's hoof fits neatly into the shoe of a Chinese courtesan.
In my own case, that personal relationship with heroic fantasy stems from my sense of life's transience, the threat & quickness of death whether from an automobile collision or nuclear holocaust or cancer or a brief encounter with a handgun. Even the common division of Good from Evil in the simpler sword & sorcery adventures is something I can relate to, as I experienced much of abject evil as a small child not yet corrupted, & understand all too well that there is absolute evil & absolute innocence at odds in this world. Life is short even if nothing happens to abbreviate it further. One can understand this by reading the daily paper & becoming distressed. How much more entertaining to understand it in the fabular context of magic & adventure.
Dangerous as life may be, there's yet a lot to be said for it, a fact that increases the tragedy of its brevity. Inherent in feelings of life's transience is a sense of its joy & beauty. Heroic fantasy at its best observes things to be as menacing, amoral, simple, & inevitable as dying. It can be read escapistly, but it is not inherently escapist. In our daily lives we aren't apt to get in a duel of steel, but anyone who passes through this life without dangerous encounters of any kind has got to be a milquetoast holed up in a dreary cell.
Heroic fantasy is, for me, a celebration of life's brief, transient joys & sorrows. When it is done well, the language has a high level of beauty as in M. John Harrison's Pastel City stories. When the writing is flawed but still capable of delighting, as in Moorcock's Elric saga, there are yet images of stunning beauty, & not invariably of a grotesque kind of beauty either. The heroic fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith are excessive in their jewel-brightness, decorative throw-backs to the Aesthete & Decadent writings of the 1890s & before. Any heroic fantasy authors worth salt have read Tasso, Ariosto & Spenser & have incorporated into their own writing a veneer of claccisism. Moorcock's Gloriana, Anderson's The Broken Sword & Cabell's Jurgen or The High Place offer evidence that beauty counts. It is the lever by which the horror & violence of existence is revealed.
This may sound awfully idealistic, & someone is apt to be saying about now that heroic fantasy includes some of the worst popular writing to have appeared in the fantasy & science fiction field generally. I hear that red-herring a lot, from people who give Hugos & Nebulas to books I wouldn't wipe my ass with. Putting aside the too-often-heard & asinine notion that Fantasy is mostly rubbish but Science Fiction is far-seeing brilliant stuff, it remains that heroic fantasy is an ancient form of story-telling that survives to this day in good & bad varieties. To me, the combination of beauty & horror that is heroic fantasy's ideal makes it the most noble & valuable of all literatures.
Perhaps for some, heroic fantasy is merely a celebration of pointless gory mayhem & an escape from the world's banalities & the tedium of their own work-a-day lives. Heroic fantasy is many things to many people, some of those things questionable or sad. But in most cases it is not indicative of stunted reading tastes. I am reminded of a conversation with A. J. Budrys in which I referred to Jerusalem Delivered & Macbeth as proof of heroic fantasy's classical origins. I was asked rhetorically, "But how many readers have ever looked at Tasso outside of a Univeristy course?" I was taken aback, because I had previously assumed science fiction readers to be as obsessive as those of us enamored of heroic fantasy; that they had followed the cosmic escapades of Voltaire & de Bergerac as closely as they had Asimov, Heinlein & LeGuin. But here was my first clue that perhaps the "dorky" sword & sorcery fans were unique. Because it came as quite a surprise to A-J, & to others since, that heroic fantasy readers are very often baited into the literature in depth; & I am not the least surprised when such fans prove capable of quoting Tasso or Spenser to me (usually the bloodiest episodes).
Up through the 1970s, the mid-lists of f/sf publishers were not padded out with drivelish fantasy novels, & if your tastes veered away from science fiction into fantasy works, you ran fresh out of reading material after fewer than 100 books. The Ballentine Adult Fantasy line of the late '60s & early '70s included many classics, & these provided clues to still others. Throughout the 1970s, to be a fantasy reader became a sign of highly contrasting good & poor taste embodied in each individual. We were immersed in William Morris, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, Vathek, Orlando Furioso, right alongside the pulp extravaganzas of Robert E. Howard's least impressive imitators.
Perhaps the current generation of readers coming up behind mine will be as narrowly read as the average "sci-fi guy," for there is no longer a dearth of dreadful stuff to be followed, & it's no longer necessary to resort to classics. But I'd rather think our privileged readership will continue their sense of amazement that a genre viable into the twenty-first century was already ancient in Roman times, & new readers will continue to embrace more than the feeblest modern versions.
Excellence of writing certainly adds to my enjoyment of heroic fantasy, but I've been known to get by on some pretty feeble stuff as well. The point is that the emotions is where the reader responds, whether at a high or low intellectual level. We might be looking for something other than to be dazzled by an author's mastery of, or cleverness with, the English language a la James Joyce. For this reason the works of Robert E. Howard, as simply executed as a naive painting, lacking technical excellence, resounds inside the reader with the author's emotional integrity, touching our emotions with his.
We're all looking for something of our own spirit in what we read. Fiction is a mirror. If what shines back isn't very attractive, well, that was worth finding out. It was even entertaining. Whether the soul is blackly smeared or polished bright as steel, it is less concerned with technique than it is with intentions & events. If such tales aren't always done with the finest of grace, who's to say the awkward fellow isn't of greater genius than some refined courtier? And the courtier in turn a better artist than the technical wizard? There exist naive artists, & highly polished & refined artists, of equal merit in my estimation. There are also some very successful writers who are not artists at all; their works tend to be the majority, & they fail to touch me in the least.
The point is that some of us have good taste and like heroic fantasy. That's less a conflict than may at first sound likely. It only means that for many of us, there is something special about heroic fantasy. It's close to our truth & inner vision.
Jessica Amanda Salmonson is the author of a heroic fantasy trilogy about a woman samurai, Tomoe Gozen, & has edited several heroic fantasy anthologies. Check the Catalog via navigation bar below for availability.
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