The odd thing about Sword and Sorcery is that it will not die despite the various attempts to kill it.
Sloppy overproduction ruined its reputation, its focus on violence and pre-modern-style patriarchal societies made it politically unfashionable, role players made it nerdy, then Terry Pratchett slashed and burned through its tropes, and still it survived!
Like a thief, Sword and Sorcery springs nimbly between media: “Literature has become hostile? Fine, now I’m a comic! Intellectuals look down on me? No problem, I’m a movie.”
Like a mercenary captain, it furnishes characters to other genres: “Fashion favors Fantasy fiction? OK, but take a look at some of the supporting characters…”
Like a rogue, it’s a master of disguise: “Sword and Sorcery? Never heard of it mate! I’m Heroic Fantasy!”
It’s true that Sword and Sorcery is a most flexible genre. With no need to nod at extrapolation, and the capacity to invent bespoke cosmologies, it can reflect changing times and social mores, while still delivering a dose of physical adventure and sense of wonder. It’s also true that the genre has inherent literary advantages: magic and religion can support interesting themes, and close-quarters combat gives us the secondhand experience of people putting their bodies where their personal politics are.
However, there’s another factor that I think is easily overlooked. To understand it, you have to come Christmas toy shopping with me.
Here’s Britain’s Early Learning Centre. Have a quick look around.
Do you see any modern guns or tanks? Even the Playmobil range, which does do SWAT teams, has been limited to Rescue Services and Dinosaurs with just the Police Patrol Boat providing the potential for a firefight.
Yes, the ELC is a cosy politically correct haven for parents who want to buy their children constructive toys that will help them learn to solve problems by sharing and negotiating. Until you click, Castles, Knights and Monsters.
Swordsmen, siege weapons, trolls, even — By Crom! — a sheep monster(!). You’re a few £50 notes away from Helm’s Deep on the nursery floor.
Consider that cute plastic castle and think on what you know about real Medieval sieges.
They’re pretty bloody desperate, aren’t they?
Typically, the attackers endure dysentery, while the defenders slowly starve. In an assault, the attackers die in droves, and — if they fail — the defenders suffer expropriation at best and mass execution at worst, with all sorts of horrors in between. Meanwhile, the surrounding countryside becomes a smear of mud and ash.
And what are those aristocratic knights fighting for? Macho honor, money, and loot, mostly. And the fighting itself? Howling men hacking away like madmen while the maimed writhe out their lives on the ground, clutching horrendous wounds, and blood and brains spatter that pretty armor. Even as toys, swords are dangerous. Those quaint traditional wooden swords people like to buy can still put out your eye.
On the face of it, modern military toys should be more acceptable to modern parents.
In corners of Modern History, the Geneva convention at least nominally applies. The combatants often serve in disciplined armies, and at least one of the sides may be motivated by modern political values and fighting for a democracy. The combat is still grim, but less atavistic; more fire and maneuver, less berserker rampage. And, best of all, you can point a toy gun and go bang without making physical contact with your playmate.
Yes, modern military toys should be more acceptable, but they are not. Parents have this weird blind spot. Swords and knights savor of fairy tales. Guns reek of napalm and lost young men committing atrocities on grainy Youtube videos.
Swords good, guns bad.
I’m not complaining.
All this means that Sword and Sorcery occupies an archetypal place in the Western imagination. There’s something cosy and satisfying, and, ultimately, right, about the genre because we all take in its tropes with our milk and cookies.
M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) is a Scottish-based writer and swordsman. His debut novel The Sword is Mightier came out recently. His Foreworld SideQuest, Marshal versus The Assassins is now available on Amazon.