Sword or Sorcery?

How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?

Robert Howard – The Drums of Pictdom

I am a fan of Sword & Sorcery. I am a big fan of Robert Howard’s Conan and completely in love with Karl Wagner’s Kane, and there are a good number of things I really like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric. I also am not much of a fan of what is in this current decade called Epic Fantasy. (Probably going to be named something else again soon.) It’s mostly the 1,000+ page trilogy format that isn’t doing it for me. It’s not so much the number of pages, but the broad scope and also the endless cliffhangers that keep you waiting for answers for years and decades. At the same time, I have searched my feelings and know it to be true, I don’t have the ability to commit to multi-installment works that will leave readers hanging with an unfinished story when I lose interest halfway through. But in Sword & Sorcery you generally get very tight stories with a clear focus on actual stuff happening, combined with a short length format. It was actually my first reading of Conan that made me consider writing as a medium for my creative ideas in the first place. So writing Sword & Sorcery seemed the obvious choice.

But success has been very limited so far, with a long break in which I pretty much forgot about the whole idea entirely. The format of Sword & Sorcery, with it’s length and scope certainly seems like the right one for me, but I am having doubts if it might be the genre that is holding me back. Conan is fun and Kane is great. But while they are both very entertaining characters to read about, it’s more with a morbid fascination. (Which in the case of Kane seems to have been Wagner’s intention.) Everything that they stand for does nothing for me or is outright repulsive. While I consider Conan to be honorable and behaving rational in the environment he inhabits, his values mean nothing to me. And for Kane there is one simple word that perfectly describes him. Evil. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, observing him is fascinating and I dare say meaningful, it is not the exploration of evil that fuels the flames of my creativity and imagination.

While Robert Howard was a great writer, I am not Robert Howard. The drums of pictdom are not sounding in my soul. Conan is fun, but he is not moving me. Neither daring the world to try to impose its will on me and then crushing it to assert my individual autonomy, nor struggling with living in a society that doesn’t value or respect my personal inner life are things that are reflecting my own ideals and aspirations. The craving for conflict and need to prove my worth that is so central to the Sword & Sorcery genre has nothing to do with what I value and consider meaningful.

Instead, the works that have much more relevance to me are things like Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and The Empire Strikes Back. Which now that I think about it are all about striving to be good and freeing yourself from greed, hatred, and delusion. (It’s all Zuko that interests me in Avatar, I don’t care much for Aang.) Then there is also Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I admit has a lot of pulpy action concealing a much more interesting subplot), Ghost in the Shell, Mushishi, and Seirei no Moribito. And one very significant work for me is Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher and the videogame series that expands on it. In many ways, The Witcher exists within the context of Sword & Sorcery. It has all the ingredients, but it doesn’t become a story about a great warrior displying his might and challenging the world to try and fight him. Instead, in many ways, it is a rejection of these things. Geralt is an awesome badass warrior with inhuman powers, but he is a character who looks inward is a compassionate and humble as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style. It’s a series I have not been thinking about much in terms of my own writing because the setting has a very medieval European style with a culture in which people are deliberately thinking and acting in the terms of Europeans from the 1990s, while Kaendor is meant to not be just uneuropean but actually unearthly and I want to attempt to portray a different mindeset “inspired” by ancient peoples. But I think thematically it’s actually quite appropriate as a comparison or reference point. In its issues and meanings itis one of the closest works to what is driving my own need to tell stories. And it does so in a world of magic and monsters, which is a really nice bonus.

I am still not entirely sure what shape precisely I want to go for with A Wanderer of Kaendor. But I feel that using Sword & Sorcery (and Raiders of the Lost Ark) as my main reference point has become more of a crutch than a means to go forward. Princess Mononoke might actually be much more helpful as an example for a combination of magic, monsters, action, and stricing to do the right thing and become a better person. (And I even like the scale and scope of that story.)

5 Important Books

A discussion on Fantasy Faction raised the idea to put together lists of the most important books to your aspiration to write fantasy. As a means to get some clarification for yourself to understand what actually drives and inspires you, and to look closer at them to find clues to figuring out what is your prefered style. I first thought it would be very easy to name five books that I really enjoyed a lot, but when it comes to books that have been important and influential, this does actually become a bit harder. In the end I was able to come up with five books that left very strong impressions on me, and of which I feel quite certain that they really are the five most important.

In chronological order:

  1. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver by Michael Ende: There are three books by Ende that we had read to us at an early age, which were Jim Button, The Neverending Story, and Momo. All three are amazing books, but in hindsight Jim Button was the one I liked the most. It’s an adventure story that has the heroes travel to many weird places and encounter lots of strange people and experience all kinds of amazing things. And how can you beat character names like Sursulapitschi, Mister Shufulupiplu, and King Alfonse the Quarter to Twelfth. It’s not as bleak and The Neverending Story and Momo, which are highly existential works, though there is still some actually quite heavy stuff going on that was inspired by the Nazis and World War 2.
  2. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: This book isn’t on this list because of it’s quality, but for the impact it had on me as a fantasy fan. I never make a secret of how massive an influence Star Wars has had on me, and during those great years in the 90s I was also reading a good number of books in addition to playing lots of games. I think when the new movies came out, me and my brother had read about all the novels that had been released in German up to that point, except for those written for children. And among these books there clearly is no contender for the throne other than Heir to the Empire. It was the book that laid the foundation for Star Wars being more than just three fun movies, but a massive setting with a huge body of works. And it was also one of the first that we got. And in addition to that, it also is actually a really decent book. It’s good and still quite fun to read. I’ve read it again a while back but still somehow have not turned my extensive notes I took into a proper review.
  3. Conan by Robert Howard. All the Conan stories fit neatly into a single volume which is why I am treating them as one book here. Conan is the starting point of Sword & Sorcery and set the gold standard by which any other works are still being measured. The scale goes from 0 to Conan. Despite being the first real Sword & Sorcery series (though Howard’s proto-Conan Kull did get two story released a few years earler) it set a standard that has never been reached again. Really, what can you say about Conan? It’s amazing. Reading Conan was what got me into Sword & Sorcery and also gave me the inspiration to try writing myself as it shows how great a story can be within a format that I feel I could be able to tackle myself.
  4. Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner: While Conan has never been rivaled, Kane is perhaps the one that ever came the closest. Death Angel’s Shadow was the first Kane book that I read and I was nothing but amazed by it. Reading Conan made my love Conan. Reading Kane made me love Sword & Sorcery. Hard to describe the greatness of this series in a few sentences, so I am simply linking to the three full reviews I did here.
  5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski: I encountered the Witcher in the first game adaptation of the series and was so impressed by it that I eventually gave a try to the books. The first one of which is The Last Wish. Like the previous two works I listed, this book is a collection of stories but one that acually has a very tight chronological order that give it more of an episodic character than a collection of different works. It’s a really damn good book. The series has the best written characters I’ve encountered in a book so far, really no contest there. Like Conan and Kane, it’s also quite existential, which makes the conflicts the characters find themselves in feel so much relevant and meaningful. As with the previous series, I’ve written four reviews about it so far.

Looking at the completed list, I noticed something that really doesn’t surprise me at all. Except for the first entry, all the others are from series that I have given their own categories for posts here. And they are the only four series that I have treated that way. Looking at the categories list on the right could have speed this up by a bit.

Book Review: Kull: Exile of Atlantis

While most people know of Conan, only few have ever heard of Kull. Kull was, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt of Robert Howard to write heroic fantasy, but he had only very little commercial success with the series and I believe only managed to sell a single story to a magazine. It was only much later when he had already become famous with Conan that people really took interest in his earlier stories about Kull. This collection appears to include everything Howard ever wrote about Kull and I think even goes a bit overboard with it. Not only does it included several full stories (which admitedly would have made for a pretty thin book), but also earlier drafts for some of them and a number of fragments that were never completed and sometimes only conist of a few pages. If you only look at the actual full stories, this book is a lot shorter than it looks.

Kull does have his fans and many of them are sometimes quite vocal in asserting that Kull is not simply a proto-Conan. And while it’s true that Kull is not just that, he still is very clearly a proto-Conan. Kull is a barbarian from Atlantis who had a turbulent career as a slave, gladiator, and soldier, until he led a rebellion against the king of Valusia and strangled him with his bare hands, taking the throne for himself. Not only is that pretty much exactly what we’re told about Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, but The Phoenix on the Sword is 80% identical to the Kull story By This Axe I Rule. Conan did not come from nowhere or out of nothing. Conan was Robert Howard’s attempt to take Kull and make the stories more action-packed with more monsters and grander villains. And as we now know, it worked.

While I’ve heard some people say that they actually like Kull more than Conan, I’m really not feeling that way. As a character, yes, perhaps Kull might be a bit more interesting. But when it comes to the actual stories and what is on the page, Conan is playing in a completely different league. The stories of Kull are not bad and clearly the work of a writer with a fascinating imagination. But as the craftsmanship goes I do find them rather lacking. There are good ideas, but as pacing and tension goes they are mostly pretty weak. And I don’t really feel surprised that Howard was not able to sell them to a magazine for publication. Even the completed stories still feel like drafts, and often like first drafts at that. As completed stories they aren’t just that good and I think reading Kull at his best is comparable to seeing Conan at his weakest.

When it comes to rating this book, it really is much easier than I’d like to: Nay! I do not think this is a good book. I can not recommend it to people looking for something fun to read. It’s still worth reading if your interest in Kull is an academic one. This is where Sword & Sorcery really started and where it took the shape we now know. And this is Robert Howard when he was starting out writing fantasy, which is also really fascinating to examine for a fan. But I don’t think it is offering much when you’re looking for entertainment.

Movie Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Synopsis: What a shitty movie.

I’ve watched this movie about a year or so ago, but my memory was a bit hazy so I watched it a second time before doing a review of it. Why did I even bother?

The movie is called Conan the Barbarian, which is exactly the same name as the famous and highly regarded movie Conan the Barbarian. It’s neither a remake nor a reboot, nor anything like that, so why us the name of an already existing movie? There is an infinite number of possible titles, and so many options to name it that make it clear that it’s Conan. And now we always have to call it Conan the Barbarian 2011. Conan the Barbarian is not even the name of the series of stories, comics, and other stuff. Conan the Barbarian is just the name of a single movie. The Ahnold movie. This is a cheap attempt to cash in on someone elses good work. Despite not being a remake of Conan the Barbarian, and I think the director explicitly said it’s not a remake but a completely separate movie, Conan the Barbarian 2011 recycles the stupid subplot of Conan searching for the warlord who destroyed his village and killed his father. Which is a completely original invention of Conan the Barbarian and doesn’t exist anywhere else in the story of the character. Totally not a remake. Because they said so. Even Conan the Barbarian could barely be considered an adaptation of the Conan stories. Conan the Barbarian 2011 does a bit more name dropping so you know that it takes place in the Hyborian Age, but feels even less connected to the source material. Conan the Barbarian may not really have had much to do with the original stories, but I think it did a great job at visualizing the setting and bringing it to life. This movie doesn’t.

The movie is way too dark most of the time, so you can’t see anything. The music is also way too loud and the voices way too low, so you can’t hear anything either. Not that there would be anything to hear either. The plot is pretty much nonexistent. Any 20 minutes episode of Conan the Adventurer had more plot than this. And this is no joke. I actually mean that literally. While the indoor shots are always too dark, the outdoor shots of cities and fortresses all look terribly fake. They look like out of 300 or a Diablo III cutscene. Pretty, but completely inappropriate.

The first half hour is wasted on Conan’s childhood and the raid on his village. Conan’s dad is played by Ron Perlman, which could have been really cool, but he doesn’t actually get to do anything but die in a ludicrous way. The two villains, a daddy sorcerer and his daughter sorcerer, could potentially have been interesting. Of course in the actual movie, they are not. Originally, the sorcerer wasn’t the real Big Bad, but his wife was. But she was defeated and burned while he and their young daughter survived. And now he has some plan how to bring her back to life and continue with her original plan. There are a few moments where his daughter hints that she is not really feeling quite comfortable with bringing her sorcerer mother back from hell and that could have been the hook for a really great plot. But the movie completely forgets about it quickly and it’s instead about the daddy sorcerer needing the blood of the last descendant of Archeron to activate a mask that will make him a god. That idea of having the villains of a story being only the henchmen of the real evil mastermind, but one of them having doubt if they should really resurrect her was the one thing that made me want to take another look at the movie to see if there were any more details I didn’t remember. (Hopefully without spoiling too much, there is very interesting similar plot thread in Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I really loved.) But no, there wasn’t. It was a hint of something interesting and nothing ever comes from it. The other characters are a black guy Conan knows who shows up in a few scenes, apparently his second in command, but who never does anything. Then there is a woman who screams a lot and also doesn’t do anything. And finally an annoying thief character sidekick who screams just as much and does even less, and should have been played by Rob Schneider. Because when you’re producing utter crap, then do it right! I can’t remember the names of any of these characters and that is always a very strong indicator that the plot of the movie is shit. It means that there isn’t any relevant conversation in which people talk about characters. Instead they are just cardboard cutouts. I had the same experience when I was watching Avatar. Which was also bad, but not nowhere near as crap as this.

Conan barely has any resamblance to Conan at all. The only thing that feels a bit like Conan is when he shoves other people around with complete disregard for their complaints. That is a trait the character actually has. But Conan is a guy who is usually pretty cheerful and energetic. This guy is just mopey and gloomy while trying to be edgy. And then they have the audacity to have him say “I love, I love, I slay, and I am content”! A real quote from a Conan story that is a very popular line to sum up the character of Conan in a few words. Here it is just a sad joke. This is not the man of gigantic sorrows and gigantic mirth. This is just a whiny emo crybaby.

Of course, there is something like a romance sub”plot”, but I think most porn movies would feel to embarrased to try anything like this. Conan looks at the women for a few seconds, suddenly they kiss and then there’s a dark sex scene. The next morning she secretly leaves him while he still sleeps and is captured by the villains no less than 20 seconds later. A bit earlier, some unidentified men in boats board Conans ship early in the morning. Then there is a fight scene, the attackers are all killed, and Conans crew cheers, and then it’s cut to the next scene, the whole event never mentioned again. Now probably these were meant to be some more of the villains minions, but this scene has no narrative content or pupose at all. It’s just five minutes of fighting without sense or reason. And I believe this movie exist entirely for the stunts and effects. Which aren’t even that great or interesting. And during all these action scenes the movie uses Michael Bay cutting more agressively than even Micheal Bay, cutting about once per second on average and at some points even more often. Good luck finding any point in a fight scene where you get more than 3 seconds without a cut. And since I am at fight scenes, Conan always only fights in loincloth and the other costumes also look bad. And the two villains both use utterly ridiculous swords. Again, if you produce crap, do it right. They should have used the weapons from Krull and The Sword and the Sorcerer instead.

Crom, what a shitty movie! I think this is even worse than The Scorpion King. I think it might actually be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. And this includes Dungeons & Dragons. I am glad I only use a two point rating scale, or I would have to really think hard how shit this movie really is. But so I can say without doubt in my voice: Nay! Do not watch this shitty movie, but crush the DVD, see it driven before you, and hear the lamentation of its makers.

What an utter turd.