Not Another Bloody Trilogy

This article by Mike Chinn about the trilogy phenomenon first appeared in Dark Horizons 32 (1991). Whatever happened to Sword and Sorcery fiction? Nothing, I hear you say, go look at the bookshelves in WHSmith or Waterstone's some time: choked with the stuff! But is that really true - I mean really, so-help-me Crom, true? Look again at those shelves; are you sure what you're seeing isn't an endless line of toothless clones churned off a conveyer belt to satisfy an uncritical audience? Huh? The noble line that began with John Carter of Mars, through Conan, out of Tolkien and Moorcock has been turned into milquetoast!

Hold it, hold it! Back up there hoss! Perhaps I’d better sketch in a little background here, just in case some of our younger readers are lost. Okay then…

Presumption one: anything written prior to 1900 doesn’t count. Now I know there’s a whole universe of stuff there to choose from, but generally it relies too heavily on existing myth and fable to be easily shoehorned into our cosy pigeonhole. I’ve heard sources quote ‘The Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ as the first S&S fiction – but wasn’t old Homer simply transcribing popular myths of the time into epic poetry (What do you mean ‘simply’?!) Be honest: he was retelling what to Greeks was a genuine piece of history. They believed it had happened. If you want to make a case for Heroic Fantasy here, then you’re gonna have to include Macbeth, King Lear (itself based on ancient Welsh legends), Julius Caesar and all the Richards and Henrys of Shakespeare – all are as much interpretations of history as perceived in the 16th and 17th centuries as Homer’s little ditties were in his day. No, sorry gang, we’re going to have to draw the line somewhere.

So, first there was John Carter, gentleman of Virginia and all-round show-off. Transported to Mars (Barsoom) by means of never fully explained (astral travel? Death? Matter transmission?), while Edgar Rice Burroughs provided the beginnings of modern Heroic Fantasy with his weird aliens, lost/rescued Princesses, endless swordplay and non-stop action. Indeed, he virtually created the Sword and Planet sub-genre that was mined so successfully by such as Otis Adelbert Kline and more recently, Lin Carter.

It remained to Robert E. Howard to add the magic (in more ways than one) with his tales of Conan, King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, et al. Certainly, most of his characters were virtually interchangeable (Lin Carter and L. Sprague De Camp going so far as rewriting some of his non-fantasy, Middle Eastern tales starring Kirby O’Donnell and Francis Xavier Gordon, aka El Borak, as Conan stories for anthologies), but that doesn’t change the fact that this strapping, sexually tormented Texan single-handedly influenced the future of fantasy fiction.

Michael Moorcock’s most popular creation, Elric of Melnibone, owes his very existence to Robert E. Howard. After Moorcock failed to sell a ‘Conan’ story to ‘Science Fantasy’, the editor, Ted Carnell, suggested he rewrite it, since he hadn’t been after Conan style stuff anyway. Thus was ‘The Dreaming City’ born, the rest, as they say, is history. From the tormented albino to Dorian Hawkmoon von Koln, Corum Jhaelen Irsei (aka Corum Llaw Ereint) to Erekose, and all the other facets of the Eternal Champion, Moorcock dragged S&S away from its Earthbound grovellings and flung it where it belongs: the endless cosmos of the Multiverse (or Omniverse, or Internection, or any of the several names ascribed by writers since).

Incidentally, the term Multiverse was actually used in all seriousness in recent scientific article discussing the possibility of universes outside our own. A view increasing in favour amongst cosmologists.

Of course, Moorcock did become the victim of his own success – reduced to churning out inferior Fantasy work to satisfy the public, whilst admitting he had come to loathe the genre. The man has become an analogy of the field he once helped to shape.

Tolkien. Ah, Tolkien. I think here we have the biggest influence on the present market. The Hobbit‘ andThe Lord of the Rings probably did as much for the hippy ’60s (and post-hippy ’70’s at that) as Timothy Leary’s ‘tune in, turn on and drop out’ philosophy. Comparisons still appear on book covers! If old JRR Tolkien was still around today his endorsements would probably appear as often as Stephen King’s. Which brings us neatly to…

Presumption two: it’s all Tolkien’s fault!

Okay, I’m probably a bit hard on the old guy. But if you take another look at those bookshelves – which of the four influences listed above would you say is the most represented/copied/pastiched/down-right ripped off?

Noble quests are in, ladies and gentlemen; decent storytelling, original plotlines and mature characteristics are out! We’re all drowning in cute elves and pixieshit! Not to mention the agonising pseudo-Celtic societies everyone seems to favour these days. What was so special about the Celts? Well, half the authors don’t know, that’s for sure; since all their ideas seem to come from each other and some half-baked mysticism dreamed up under the Californian sun.

Publishers code: if it worked once, it’ll work a million times more. So recycle endlessly in just about every possible configuration; usually in the form of a 150,000 word trilogy, languishing under the overall title of The Crotchwanger Saga or The Icing-Sugar Cycle.

The question is: are editors stuck in some adolescent time-warp or do they think we are? Horrifying thought.

Recently I heard the comment that crap S&S must be okay – because it sells. Is that meant to be some kind of endorsement!? Interestingly enough, this argument came from the same quarter that condemn publishers out of hand for lumping Horror fiction together as if it was all schlock. ‘What is it? Horror? Okay – put a decaying zombie chewing the leg off a naked woman on the front. And make the rest of the cover black. It’s about what? The horrors of urban decay? Who gives a shit! Go with the naked woman!’

If shitty horror isn’t acceptable, how come shitty S&S is? Because believe me, you can wrap it up in an expensive cover and spend a fortune on promotion, but if you’ve got something produced by a writer/editor who thinks they’ll just jump on the bandwagon, a writer who doesn’t actually know anything about the genre, or worse, a writer who can’t even write – you’ve got shit.

How long would SF last if every novel read like a novelization of ‘Invaders from Mars’, evil bug-eyed monsters invade Earth, take over the minds of almost everyone except the young hero. And the only people who believe him are the handsome scientist and his large-breasted girlfriend. Okay – I can see you laughing at the back! But where’s the essential difference? The heroes of fantasy novels are more often than not boys not quite into manhood (often princes – but they don’t realise that; boy are they dumb!), frequently misunderstood and alienated. For handsome scientist you have kindly old wizard; and the girlfriend switches her allegiance to the boy (can you blame her? Fancy making it with a wrinkly who’s got a six foot long beard and is three hundred years old!). She, of course, is a princess – but she’s got to hate boys as much as our hero hates girls so they can have plenty of irritating arguments before they mature and realise how much they mean to each other. And then there’s the dwarves, of course. In ‘Invaders’ they’d be the army – intellectually, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I happen to think Lloyd Alexander’s ‘Prydain’ novels are wonderful – but no one pretends they are meant for anyone other than adolescents. And why should anyone need to re-write them? Surely once is enough?

What’s more, no one would ever consider SF existing without intergalactic space travel – even post-new wave. So why is so much S&S Earthbound? Surely a subject that has as its background fantastic magics and the intrigues of gods and demons could get off its arse and out into the cosmos once in a while? The effect of the supernatural on everyday people is one of the concerns of Horror, or Dark Fantasy. Heroic Fantasy deserves a much wider vision.

I think the basic problem stems from the fact that S&S, High/Heroic Fantasy, whatever you want to call it, is a genre; and all genre material has rules.

Often very strict rules – move outside them, mister, and you’re dead! That tends to promote laziness; after all, if you’re an indifferent writer, what easier way is there than to find a niche where the rules are already carved in stone, and churn out the pap. You don’t need to think anymore – and any sign of imagination is discouraged (it might not sell, after all). So what are you left with: cosy, cliched, predictable little tales with absolutely no sense of danger.

The young hero finally confronts the evil all-powerful wizard! Are we worried? Like hell – we know damn well he’ll triumph! The little wimp always does! Besides – there might be a chance of a followup trilogy.

And if you do try to step outside the confines of the genre-rules?

Westerns are one of the worst/best examples of rigidly cliched genre fiction. Everyone knows the form a Western has to take, and most films and books follow the rules closely. But occasionally, someone tries to break the out of the constraints. Sometimes the succeed: The Searchers and Shane for example – at the end of each movie the hero has failed to integrate into society, the loner has been outside too long. Neither have conventional happy endings – the ‘hero’ turning his back and waking back into the wilderness. Result: cinematic history. And sometimes they fail: Corbucci’s The Grand Silence went as far as to totally invert the stereotype – the deaf and dumb hero gunned down at the end, the villains free to go on screwing the system. Result, in this case, disaster. Never properly released in the US and Britain, a new ending had to be re-shot for release in France.

How well do you think a Fantasy novel with the bad guys winning at the end would sell, eh? You do? Now you’re thinking like a publisher, again! Horror novels frequently have down beat endings, are you telling me Horror doesn’t sell?

But I’ll say one thing for S&S – it’s damned good at dragging itself down with new cliches! Several years ago, Marion Zimmer Bradley began editing the Sword and Sorceress anthologies, as a counter to the largely male-character dominated genre. All the stories in Sword and Sorceress would be about women in Fantasy situations. Very laudable. We’ve reached volume VI now – and just about every story concerns a witch/sorceress with her swordsman companion, set in a pseudo Medieval land. In only six volumes, the fiction has become stereotyped and cliched as the fiction it sought to replace. In only a very few examples would it be impossible to change the sexes of the main protagonists without making the story nonsensical. What’s the point in having female characters if they act like men with higher voices?

So what can we conclude?

Is S&S dead on its feet, totally moribund – or is this just another of those occasional lows that afflict all fiction? I hope it’s the last. After all, twenty years ago pundits were predicting the demise of Horror – now look at it: can’t move for black covers! The Horror Party has been in full swing for over a decade and shows no sign of coming to an end yet.

That may be a pity, since I’m sure half of our problems stem from Horror’s success. Why should a publisher encourage novelty in one genre when the Horror list is doing so well? SF has been around so long it can take care of itself, but Fantasy – unless it has the prefix Dark – is a grey area: unproven. And unless someone has enough faith and talent to push against the barriers, it’s going to stay that way.

I have this vision: an author is summoned to an editor’s desk. The author has written a Fantasy novel of breadth and vision never before seen. It spans millions of years, thousands of worlds, Gods and men battle against sorcery of power unimaginable. The writing is imaginative, without being florid; to the point without being terse. Not a word is wasted. The very pages shout with heroism and tragedy.

The author – admittedly nervous, for this is his first sale -sits before the editor:

Editor: ‘I like your book. Very commendable for a first effort.’

Author: ‘Thank you.’

Editor: ‘I notice there aren’t any elves in it.’

Author: ‘True.’

Editor: ‘And there does seem to be rather a lot of violence and – well, blood.’

Author: ‘Any fiction that deals with society at this level will be violent. And I imagine demons would be pretty horrible, yes.’

Editor: ‘Only one volume, too. You couldn’t add another 100,000 words and make it into a trilogy, could you…?’

Copyright © Mike Chinn, 1992