The first real sword and sorcery stories I ever read were ones featuring Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian. To be honest, I can't remember whether or not I read them in their book form first, or in the Marvel comic adaptations, but there wasn't much difference between the two when it came to literary merit. Conan was probably the ideal comic book character.
Robert E. Howard had created him as so much larger than life, and involved him in such spectacular adventures, the stories were ideally suited to the medium. The character was so much a figure of fantasy that it really didn't stand up to the scrutiny of live action and the movies were a great disappointment. They weren't even bad enough to be good. Even with Conan being played by the walking, talking cartoon character, Arnold, there was something about live action that robbed the character of his ability to be larger than life.
That's what makes the whole genre so much fun in the first place, as far I'm concerned. Nobody reads sword and sorcery for it's intellectual qualities after all, they read it for the escapism offered by the adventures. You read them for the very qualities that make it impossible for them to be filmed; the ability to fight 25 opponents at once; take on a multi-headed, multi-armed, poisonous creature without breaking a sweat; and getting the scantily clad wench in the end.
The scantily clad wench was of course one of the primary drawing cards for sword and sorcery's original demographic; adolescent males. Thankfully it turned out that women liked a good sword fight as much as men, and the genre started to gain a level of enlightenment when it came to the objectification of women; especially when women started creating their own characters and writing the stories. With women stepping out of the harem and on to the battle field the whole complexion of the genre changed.
With the stories no longer being geared strictly for the guys who lived in their basements playing Dungeons & Dragons, the plots became more imaginative, and the characters more complex, while still retaining the all the exciting bits that made them so attractive in the first place. You don't need to look any further than Rogue Blades Entertainment‘s newly published anthology, The Return Of The Sword, edited by Jason M. Waltz, for proof of just how far the genre's come since its comic book days.
Of course that's not to say there aren't stories in the collection that show a fond attachment for those roots, and feature lots of good old-fashioned sword play and witchcraft. Let's face it, there's always going to be a market and a need for that type of story, but here they're balanced with stories that delve a little deeper into the psyche of the warrior, and look beneath the armour, behind the shield, and under the helm.
The very first story in the collection, "Alter Of The Moon" by Stacey Berg, is an example of the newer style. Now don't be put off by the title, it's not some New Age, pagan priestess propaganda posing as a fantasy story, rather it's about the price a warrior pays for being a hero, and the price paid for the gift of a magic sword.
Karen had saved her kingdom with the mysterious sword that sang to her and her alone. On the night of a new moon, with her homeland on the verge of destruction the sword called her to it, and gifted her with it's song that made her invincible in battle. Step by step, battle by battle Karen had fought until she had repelled the invading forces and her land was safe and at peace. Yet when the final battle was fought, and the last enemy fled, she was not at peace, as the sword still sang it's deadly song in her ear.
A dream takes her on a desperate journey; a dream of a path that may not exist. Yet if it does, it might just see her being rid of the sword and breaking free of the killing song in her head. While "Alter Of The Moon" is not your typical adventure story, Ms. Berg has included most of the elements that we have come to expect from sword and sorcery; magic, swordplay, and mystery. It was even irrelevant that the characters were women, they could just as easily have been men. What mattered was telling the story and Ms Berg did a great job of that which is what matters most of all.
Now if you wanted a story that was slightly more typical of the old style of sword and sorcery, Jeff Draper's "The Battle Of Raven Kill" fits the bill nicely. Oth chooses to stand and fight so his clan's people can escape those who would kill them all. While they flee in an attempt to find some safe haven he blocks the one narrow bridge the invaders have to cross to get at them. He knows they can only come at him two at a time and he is willing to buy his people time as long a there is life left in his body.
Draper does a great job of describing the action, and keeping it real. Movies will sometimes show a single man holding dozens at bay when they can only get at him one or two at a time, but somehow they don't seem to be able to capture the reality of the desperation that must grip the person making that stand. Oth knows that his chances of survival are slim, but he knows the longer he can survive the better. As the battle continues he takes wounds. At first they're minor, but as they continue to bleed and his reflexes slow from blood loss and fatigue, the wounds inflicted gain in severity.
"Why don't you just die?" the opposing war chief keeps taunting Oth. Finding a reason for being put on the earth is something that plagues many people. For Oth, this moment on the bridge where he has chosen to make his stand to preserve his people, is that reason. "Let this be why I was created" he prays just before the enemy's war party shows up. Duty and self are one for him, and as long he holds onto that he will win. Doubt, not the swords and spears of his foe, is his biggest enemy.
Draper has done a masterful job of giving a very realistic description of close and horrible infighting. No matter what some sword and sorcery writers will have you believe, it is impossible for a mere human to fight under such circumstances without having damage inflicted upon them. But sometimes the human spirit is stronger than flesh, and Draper makes that come alive as well.
I could probably go on like this for all the stories in the book, because they all have something of value, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention one other piece in particular. It's not actually a story, rather its what the editor Jason wisely refers to as a distillation of knowledge. In the middle of the book is a wonderful article by Eric Knight called "Storytelling" where he takes you through the ins and outs of how to get the most out of the story that you want to tell. For anybody with any aspirations to storytelling, no matter what the genre, its an invaluable piece of writing.
The Return Of The Sword is a wonderful collection of sword and sorcery short fiction. Editor Jason M. Waltz has gathered together some of the finest examples of the genre that I've read in a long time. Sword and sorcery has come a long way since the days of the "noble savage" wrecking havoc, but that hasn't stopped it from being a lot of fun and overflowing with action. If you're looking for a wonderful break from your daily grind, I can think of nothing better than this collection of mayhem to take your mind off things.