… and I’m not talking Tolkien.
If we look at Fantasy vs. Sword and Sorcery as two different genres, the wellsprings become clear.
Fantasy has more of a link to the mythic, to the deeper mysteries. The conflicts are clearly delineated between good and evil. There is a strong sentiment running though most of these tales which gloss over the hard realities of a pre-technological society. The past
or idealized otherworld is a better place which has to be protected against evil.
William Morris (1834-1896) was the first to take the medieval romance and set it in an entirely original world – a tradition followed by Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. And what stands out with the litarary lineage of these authors is the commonality of their background: Anglo Saxon and Germanic in tone. I won’t argue Christian as E.R. Eddision’s epic The Worm Ouroboros is not Christian in outlook at all. But for all their pagan glory, Brandoch Daha and Lord Juss could have sat at the Round Table and been comfortable among the peerage.
Sword and Sorcery (so named by Fritz Leiber) is more personal in tone. The fate of the world does not ride upon the shoulders of a prince, but instead upon a wanderer with only his wits and skill. The choices aren’t made in the chambers of power, but instead in the smelly back alleyways and taverns. There’s no glory, only survival and the next meal. There’s at least an attempt at more realism. Sword and Sorcery gets dirty.
My exchange with Howard Andrew Jones led to a point worth noting. Sword and Sorcery does take inspiration from the swashbucklers, Dumas, Sabatini and Howard Lamb, whom Robert E. Howard greatly admired. But whom did Harold Lamb take his inspiration from?
Read this paragraph and tell me if the image doesn’t remind you of a Frazetta painting?
But then, glimpsed suddenly out of the corner of an eye, a huge apparition rose above the spearpoints. A giant soared above the wall of pikes. The hooves of a great black mare flailed for a moment in the reddened air and then the animal and its rider plunged like a thunderbolt into the dense white ranks, smashing the deadly hedge into kindling wood, splintering the spears and trampling and destroying everything before them. It was as if a huge silvery bird of prey had fallen upon a huddled flock of snow-white herons in their winter plumage, tearing them apart with his beak and talons.
With Fire and Sword – Henryk Sienkiewicz, retranslated by W.S. Kuniczak
The Trilogy – as it is known in Poland is a monumental work, far surpassing in grandeur and power anything ever done by Dumas or Sabatini. It is considered to be the work of historical literature that defines the Polish nation and character. In scope, The Trilogy is MASSIVE – With Fire and Sword probably is longer in length than The Lord of the Rings – and it’s only the first book. The second book, The Deluge, is almost twice as long.
The Trilogy’s subject matter, if taken for the sake of our essay, is High Fantasy – almost a prose version of Paradise Lost as the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth crumbles despite the efforts of the heroes against a thousand assaults and treacheries – but the prose and characters have definite counterparts in sword and sorcery. Pan Yan, the great hero, Andrzej Kmicic the redemptive hero of the The Deluge, Pan Michal – the diminutive swordsman who refuses to surrender at the end of Fire in the Steppe, the final book of the series. And, of course, Pan Zagloba – who has been compared to Shakespeare’s Falstaff. These characters drink and fight like none other.
“Lamb, incidentally, once wrote an intro to a book by Sienkiewicz” – wrote Howard Andrew Jones. I simply cannot imagine how Robert. E. Howard could not have known about these stories in retrospect.
All three novels have been made into movies – I watched with Fire and Sword (the 1995 version) in it’s entirety on Youtube last Friday. To give a feel for the epic sweep of these novels here is a clip from the 1974 version of The Deluge. I believe this is the final battle where the Poles are out for revenge on the retreating Swedes, and I’m pretty sure that is Andrzej leading the charge.
Update: the Youtube clip was taken down. I am sorry it is no longer available.