While I don’t quite buy John Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces theory, I do think that there are certain basic frameworks that stories can (but never must) follow, and which can yield a nigh-infinite variety of different permutations of the same basic ideas whilst leaving room for the author’s own themes and personality to shine through. The Hero’s Journey is one such case in point; another one, which through an act of epic pretentiousness I’ll dub the Traveller’s Intervention, was fleshed out by a number of authors in the early 20th Century and goes a little something like this:
A hero, often itinerant, almost always foreign, finds himself called upon to intervene in a dilemma which frequently involves the ambitions of one or more powerful individuals. Often the hero will have his or her own ambitions, which will usually involve some form of personal advancement; occasionally the hero will be unwilling to intervene, but find themselves compelled to, either by external force or their own conscience. Eventually one side or the other in the dilemma will turn out to be in the wrong; sometimes the true villain of the piece will prove to be a raging, instinct-driven beast, whereas sometimes it will turn out to be a manipulative individual who believes that they are invested with the right (whether by tradition or by occult means or by virtue of their special qualities) to do as they please to whom they please; in the latter case, this could turn out to be the person who requested the hero’s intervention in the first place. The hero eventually discerns the correct course of action and defeats the villain, and usually endures physical danger and occult menace in the process; in most cases the hero will win through by virtue of his or her wit and skill. The situation having been resolved, the hero will normally move on, although not without a certain reward for his or her efforts. The hero, in this model, is an agent of societal change, whose intervention has the effect of either breaking a stalemate or championing the underdog, but is not a part of society but exists externally to it.
This is the formula which once refined by Robert E. Howard (with the aid of such precursors as Edgar Rice Burroughs) became the seed of the sword & sorcery subgenre of fantasy, with authors as diverse as Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock making important contributions to it. As with the Hero’s Journey, of course, the above outline is only a loose and ridiculously broad framework, and most authors (including Howard) produced works that diverge from it radically, but even then it’s notable as a departure from the standard format. (For example, the Elric series by Michael Moorcock centres around a weak-willed cripple who wins his Pyrrhic victories by virtue of his soul-stealing magic sword, but aside from this the original novellas fit the above formula surprisingly well.)
A limitation of this particular monomyth is that it appears to be more suited to short stories than to novels; whilst there are a few examples of excellent sword & sorcery novels (including much of Michael Moorcock’s output from the 1960s and early 1970s), most of the foundational works of the genre are in the short story format. This may in part be due to the framework I’ve described covering only one incident of many in an individual’s life, whereas the Hero’s Journey tends to describe the most important and valuable thing the protagonist is ever likely to do. (This may be why the quest narrative is so popular in high fantasy); I think it is also due to this sort of story working best when it has a nervous, energetic, Howard-like intensity to it, with fast pacing and lightning-fast action; this is a mood which is decidedly sustainable over the course of, say, a novella, but is difficult to maintain for the duration of a novel.
Of course, another factor has to be the origins of sword & sorcery in the first place: whilst high fantasy has its roots in novels by the likes of William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and of course Tolkien, sword & sorcery sprang from the pages of 1930s pulp fiction magazines, with a few antecedents in the form of the short stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lord Dunsany. The fact that the framework seems especially well-served by the short story format probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was devised for the short story format in the first place. But with the waning of the short story magazines as forces in SF/fantasy publishing, and with the audience’s tastes spurning most epics shorter than, say, Dune or Stranger In a Strange Land, the genre found itself in trouble in the mid-to-late 1970s. The apparent intellectual vacuity of the subgenre probably didn’t help, and neither did its undeserved reputation for misogyny and racism; both of these image problems may have resulted from oversaturation of the market by Robert E. Howard’s work, posthumously-completed Howard stories, and people writing lazy Howard pastiches. But the genre does not deserve to be written off as the disreputable legacy of an anti-intellectual, racist bigot from rural Texas, and it didn’t deserve that in 1977; luckily, a lone hero sallied forth to save the day, that hero being Andrew Offutt, editor of the Swords Against Darkness anthology series.
Anthologies of all-original SF/fantasy stories (as opposed to mere compilations of the year’s most notable output) such as Swords Against Darkness were all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s, having somewhat supplanted SF magazines; sure, if you were good with a typewriter you could get into the magazines, but if you were a real hotshot you got picked for the anthologies. The craze probably started with Harlan Ellison’s seminal Dangerous Visions, although apparently many of the all-original anthology lines of the era abjectly failed to turn a profit, and the petering-out of the Swords Against Darkness series may be a consequence of this; though Offutt would produce five such anthologies from 1977 to 1979,
Still, in this first volume the introduction displays a joyous and unrestrained enthusiasm for the genre; whilst acknowledging that at the time of publication sword & sorcery was in the doldrums, Offutt refuses to let this get him down, choosing instead to express his glee at being able to convince founding fathers of the field such as Poul Anderson and Manly Wade Wellman (what a name!) to contribute. In fact, I’d say that as an editor Offutt does a pretty much flawless job here: his introductions to the individual stories give the reader a decent idea of the author and their place in the genre, whether Andrew is introducing us to old hands like Wellman or fresh-faced novices like Ramsey Campbell, without giving away the details of the story, or committing the even worse sin of analysing it on the reader’s behalf.
As well as understanding the history of the genre and making a bold argument for its relevance, Offutt is also acutely aware of its shortcomings; for instance, he acknowledges that there isn’t a single woman among the authors present (giving the anthology a perfect Boys’ Club rating of 100%), which is a damn shame given the vital role C.L. Moore and her Jirel of Joiry stories played in the creation of the subgenre in the first place.
As Offutt explains it, he did make an effort to try and convince some women to contribute stories featuring female protagonists, but failed in his efforts. The one story which does have a female protagonist here displays such sharp misogyny that I have to wonder – was Offutt’s failure to convince women to write for the anthology a side-effect of the subgenre’s distinctly misogynistic overtones, or was it Offutt’s failure to show discretion in encouraging all contributors to avoid the more sexist aspects of the subgenre? Either way, I suspect Offutt’s “I looked but I couldn’t find any” comment may have contributed to Marion Zimmer Bradley deciding to establish the Sword and Sorceress anthology series some seven years later (a series which is still going and still proudly displaying Bradley’s name – which is a bit of a problem given the recent revelations about her).
Another problem the genre suffered from at the time Swords Against Darkness came out was Robert E. Howard. Granted, the Conan stories are as important to sword & sorcery as, say, the Declaration of Independence is to the USA, but Howard’s somewhat inflated stature (I would argue that Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clark Ashton Smith, and to a lesser extent Lord Dunsany can also be said to be cofounders of the genre) meant that he overshadowed the entire field. Not only had a number of Howard’s serious failings, like his depictions of women and occasional racist outbursts, become perniciously widespread throughout the field, but it seemed as though you couldn’t breathe for “new” Conan stories and other tales reconstructed from Howard’s various unpolished first drafts and notebooks, as well as entirely original new tales of the Cimmerian.
This had two effects: it created the false impression that sword & sorcery is basically about Conan and third-rate ripoffs of Conan, and (even worse) it flooded the market with third-rate Howard pastiches which at points threatened to push the original stories out of sight entirely; it’s only been since the late 1990s or so that this horrendous dreck has been purged, and it’s become easy to once again find the original Howard texts unblemished by posthumous meddling. (As far as I can tell the only non-Howard Conan stories on the market still are Robert Jordan’s Conan novels, and I wonder whether that isn’t just because of Jordan’s Wheel of Time-inspired popularity).
The upshot of this for Swords Against Darkness is simple: the book had Howard’s name on the cover in far larger type than Offutt’s, and it included an unfinished Howard story completed by Offutt: Nehkt Semerkeht, apparently the last tale attempted by Howard before he committed suicide in 1936. To Offutt’s credit, he clearly finds the task of tidying up after the grand old Texan daunting, and considers it his responsibility to try and finish the tale in the manner that Howard intended (luckily, Howard did at least leave behind an outline for the rest of the tale) and not fuck up badly enough to blot Howard’s reputation still further. In fact, he explains that he decided not to cut out a bit of particularly morbid philosophising on the part of the protagonist because he felt that, while it does weigh down the tale a little, it’s an accurate reflection of Howard’s depressive thinking at the time, and I think this shows a degree of respect to Howard which some of the other vultures could well have profited from.
On the whole, Swords Against Darkness was a canny move when it first came out; sword & sorcery fandom was healthy at the time (witness the fact that Michael Moorcock kept writing subpar Elric sequels and other sword and sorcery-leaning novels to pay the bills even as his interests drifted into other genres entirely), and whilst Dungeons & Dragons hadn’t hit the level of pop culture prominence it would in the 1980s, it was percolating enough to breathe a bit of extra life into to the scene.
These decades later, old-school sword and sorcery seems to be largely dead so far as I can tell, at least as a literary subgenre; occasional tabletop RPGs slip out with a deliberately nostalgic bent to them, such as the various official attempts at a Conan RPG over the years or Simon Washbourne’s rather charming Barbarians of Lemuria, but on the whole these games seem intent on pandering to an audience which is by and large happy to reread Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard all over again. Genres evolve and move on, and sword and sorcery is a flavour of fantasy whose time has largely come and gone; Swords Against Darkness remains, now that the tide has gone out, as about as even-handed a love letter as any anthologist could write to the subgenre without entirely whitewashing away its shortcomings.