[In Lands That Never Were: Tales of Swords and Sorcery from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Gordon Van Gelder. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004. 395 pp. ISBN 1-56858-314-1.]
One of my first thoughts upon dipping into In Lands That Never Were is just how very strange the subgenre of sword and sorcery really is. I mean, this isn't science fiction, in which one speculates "what if?". It isn't a ghost story, in which memories and fears of the dead linger after the living pass. It isn't the western, spurred by a specific locale, or the romance, focusing on a very specific relationship. Instead, this subgenre of fantasy focuses on a stylized representation of a specific type of warriorship — the swordsman, usually a barbarian — which is portrayed in counterpoint to a specific element of fantasy, namely sorcery.
While some of the swordsmen are nicely distinguished from the barbarian type — Leiber's Grey Mouser is distinctly urbane, and Ellen Kushner's Richard is clearly civilized — most of the swordsmen can readily stand for some blend of the forces of nature and brute force. The epitome of this is, of course, Conan. The sorcerers are less readily classifiable. They are not always doppelgangers of intelligence (though that definitely does happen fairly often — sorcery often seems to require brains), and it is still less clear what forces in humanity or human history they represent. R. Garcia's Bone Witch clearly seems a force of nature, conjuring animal shapes as she does, and perhaps a force that embodies the feminine connection with nature — but Charles Coleman Finlay's Gaud Chrysalis is more like a cross between hubris and particularly nasty political ideology, given a strange and glowing form. Nonetheless the two — sorcery and sword — are often opposed.
And the sword and sorcery genre is strange for another reason, which the dozen stories in this anthology, originally published in F&SF (though over a span of almost 40 years), makes clear. As editor Gordon Van Gelder notes in his introduction, parodies of sword and sorcery go back at least fifty years, and probably farther. Sword and sorcery always teeters on the edge of cliché, and it doesn't take much to push it over the edge into parody, as John Morressey does in his "A Hedge Against Alchemy," or to use it as raw material for metafiction, as Jeffrey Ford does in "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant." To live so obsessively, as both swordsman and sorcerer do, and so distinct from daily life, draped with the remnants of myth, song, legend, and adolescent power fantasy . . . it's an easy target. The question is, what makes the genre so darn vital? To focus the question a bit more, how is it possible for writers to be able to count on readers to recognize clichés — and enjoy them as clichés, as both Ford and Morressey do — and still be so wonderfully rich to allow the great variety, pleasure, and yes, beauty that these twelve stories provide?
The answer is not clear, but these stories suggest some clues, and interested readers can use the question as an excuse to dive into the wonders that are found here. To begin with, there is a purity in sword and sorcery stories. The best example of this comes early, in "The Hall of the Dead" by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp. Conan's singularity of purpose is not the moral purity of white and black hats of pulp westerns, but instead an intensity of desire. Conan wants, and Conan acts. Even that description sounds like a parody, but for those of us pushed into reflection, it is attractive. When this purity becomes type, as in Morressey's story, it leads to easy, accessible humor. However, simplicity and purity are also roads that lead into mathematical and philosophical consideration, as in Yoon Ha Lee's "Counting the Shapes." In this story the magic is one of contemplation, contemplation that slams into politics and emotion. Yoon Ha Lee is a mathematician, and her considerations of math and pattern are lovely.
Another reason for sword and sorcery's appeal that is evident in these stories is friendship — the same kind of friendship that is found in buddy movies, Star Wars, sports teams, and Boy Scouts. Is there something adolescent to it? Sure, there can be, and something that's traditionally male, too, as the predominance of male authors in this collection suggests. However, it is not only adolescent, and part of what these stories do is recreate a world in which people make friends quickly (as in the Conan story), dramatically (as in the classic "Ill Met in Lankhmar" by Fritz Leiber), and profoundly (stories too many to mention, but most obviously the Leiber story and in "The Island in the Lake" by Phyllis Eisenstein, "Darkrose and Diamond" by Ursula K. LeGuin and "King Rainjoy's Tears" by Chris Willrich). In some ways, these characters have child-like friendship — indeed, many of the characters meet while still adolescent — but in other ways, the friendships they share are what friendships should be, and the external challenges they face fine metaphors for threats we all must face. The affection that friends in sword and sorcery share has long been recognized as bordering on romantic love; one nice element of these stories is that this love comes out of the sublimated closet. In Willrich's story, the man loved is explicitly (and magically) clinging to an extended adolescence. The woman loves him anyway. In Kushner's story, the swordsman loves a scholar . . . both male, and a natural outgrowth of their male bonding.
Having raised the specter of metaphor, I should go ahead and say yes, metaphor and symbolic externalization of emotion contribute greatly to these stories' appeal. That seems a heavy weight to lay on stories that are rooted in pulp and pop, but so be it. When you read a story like Phyllis Eisenstein's "The Island in the Lake," you can read it as literal, with the "cursed" waters of the lake being literally cursed, and the magic as real too. But you can also read it as being about bitterness, deception, and a love that seeks what's best for the beloved in a difficult situation. Read it for yourself, to see if I'm making too much of this — and if I am, tell if you can read "King Rainjoy's Tears" as anything but symbolic!
A final quality that allows this genre to flourish is the self-reflexive quality built into it. From its very beginning the genre has included stories about heroes and great deeds within the stories. These stories are sometimes explored, sometimes debunked, sometimes lived up to, and sometimes commented upon by the characters in the story. This provides a kind of moebius strip of perspectives for the reader. You can read the stories innocently, as one might read Conan at 13, and simply enjoy the adventure. You can read the stories ironically, as one might read "Ill Met in Lankhmar" at 19 . . . and still enjoy the adventure. One might read the stories about the meaning of stories, at a still more mature age, as one is guided to do "Dragon's Gate" by Pat Murphy and "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant" by Jeffrey Ford. From any of these perspectives, however, there are always connections to others, and perhaps that is one of the greatest magicks of all about sword and sorcery stories, or at least, about the dozen collected in In Lands That Never Were. No matter what your perspective, these stories are lovely. Enjoy them.