Posts tagged ‘Monday Masterclass’

Monday Masterclass: Mervyn Peake

Saturday was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mervyn Peake, author of the Gormenghast trilogy. This week’s Monday Masterclass will look at the man, his life and his most famous work.

Biography

Mervyn Laurence Peak was born on 9th July, 1911 in the hill town of Lushan (also known as Kuling; the town was a colonial resort frequented by British and American travellers) in Jiangxi province, China. Peake’s parents worked in China as missionaries; Mervyn went to school in Tianjin. Peake’s experiences of China, of relations between westerners and native, between rich and poor, have been cited as a major influence on his work – the Forbidden City is supposedly a model for Gormenghast castle.

They left the country in 1922 and settled in England. Peake studied art at Croydon School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. As a young man, Peake worked as an artist, exhibiting work at various shows, including work as part of the Sark Group. Sark is one of the Channel Islands, off the coast of northern France, and Peake lived there for a time during the 1930s as well as later on.

He started teaching art at Westminster School of Art in 1935, and met his future wife, Maeve Gilmore the following year on her fist day as a student at the school. They married in 1937 and went on to have three children: Sebastian (1940), Fabian (1942) and Clare (1949).

Peake applied to be a war artist at the outbreak of the Second World War, but was rejected. He was enlisted and served with the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers. After more requests to be a war artist and more rejections, Peake suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942. Shortly after, he was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committe, and later left the army. Shortly after the war, working as a war artist, he was one of the first outsiders to see the inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had a profound effect on him.

In the 1940s, Peake wrote Titus Groan and  Gormenghast and illustrated many books – including works by Lewis Carroll, Coleridge, the Brothers Grimm and Robert Louis Stevenson – and also designed the Pan Books logo (he had a choice of receiving either a flat fee of £10 or a farthing (¼ penny) per book sold; on the advice of his friend Graham Greene, who thought that paperbacks were a fad, he chose the £10). He started teaching art, and met his future wife through his job.

The Peake family moved back to Sark in the 1940s for a few years, before returning to England in 1950. He continued to teach, paint and write, producing Mr Pye (his only non-Gormenghast novel) about a man who goes to Sark to evangelise the native, only to start growing wings; when he starts to do bad deeds to compensate, he grows horns.

In the 1950s Peake’s health began to decline – he developed Parkinson’s disease and progressively lost his ability to draw and write. He finally died on 17th November 1968 at a nursing home near Oxford. In addition to his novels and art, he also produced several short stories and six books of poetry during his life. It is the Gormenghast books, however, for which he is most remembered and admired.

Gormenghast

The three novels of this series that were written by Peake are Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). The first two are widely acknowledge as masterpieces of gothic fantasy. In the first, the hidebound world of Gormenghast – a sprawling, crumbling castle inhabited by Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan and a whole cast of grotesque characters – is disturbed by the birth of Titus, a long-awaited heir, and by the rise of Steerpike, a ruthlessly ambitious kitchen boy. In the second, Titus, now Lord Groan, is older and Steerpike’s plans are becoming increasingly murderous; the book ends with a confrontation between the two, and with Titus abandoning his home.

The third book is much shorter, and was much affected by Peake’s waning health and, in the first edition, by some clumsy editing. In it, Titus wanders the land and finds himself caught up in the affairs of a city with high technology. It doesn’t have the same gothic resonance or lush prose of its predecessors, but is not without merit.

Peake also wrote a novella entitled Boy in Darkness, about a young Titus Groan escaping Gormenghast for a terrifying adventure.

In addition, Peake planned at least two more novels in the Gormenghast saga, apparently to be called Titus Awakes and Gormenghast Revisited. Peake’s wife, Maeve, using a few pages written by her husband for the former novel, completed a manuscript entitled Search Without End in the 1970s. She never published it, but now, to commemorate the centenary of Peake’s death, his family are releasing it under its original title.

Miscellaneous

With this 100th anniversary, there has been a lot of media coverage of Peake and Gormenghast recently. Here is a selection:

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Monday Masterclass: Barbarians in Fantasy

Contemporary fantasy aside, most works of fantasy depict a world with a much lower level of technology than our own world. Fantasy secondary worlds are often quasi-Medieval, or depict worlds similar to the Renaissance or to the civilisations of Ancient Greece or Rome. The plot will generally be set in or centred around the most advanced part of the world, but will incorporate a common fantasy trope: the barbarian.

 

Etymology

The word barbarian today means an uncivilised person with strong connotations of savagery and cruelty, but its original definition – it come from the Greek barbaros – was simply ‘foreign, non-Greek’. The word was an onomatopeic representation of how foreigners spoke (either their own language or Greek).

The name of the Berbers of north Africa comes from the same root, as does ‘Barbary Coast’ (ie, coastal north Africa). Even the female name ‘Barbara’ is related – probably because of the many female foreign slaves in Ancient Greece.

Example in Fantasy

The most famous fantasy barbarian of all is, of course, Conan – who was created by Robert E Howard in the early twentieth century and has been the hero of many stories by subsequent authors, including Robert Jordan, Lin Carter and L Sprague de Camp. Conan is a native of the northern land of Cimmeria, and his people are based on ancient Indo-Europeans and Celts; the Cimmerians are also descendants of the Atlanteans, although they have no memory of this heritage. Their land is gloomy and mountainous and the Cimmerians are an extremely hardy people. While they are a primitive, tribal race, they also have a strong sense of justice – which, in the tales of Conan’s exploits, is contrasted with the decadence and corruption of more civilised lands.

Fafhrd in Fritz Leiber’s stories such as ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ is another prominent barbarian northman. Terry Pratchett satirises the trope with his Cohen the Barbarian, an elderly warrior who laments the passing of a heroic age. Cnaiür urs Skiötha in R Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing series is a Scylvendi barbarian whose homeland is between the largely unpopulated northern regions from where the preternaturally insightful Anasûrimbor Kellhus hails and the civilised lands around the Three Seas.

In A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, the Dothraki are barbarian horsemen of the eastern continent who are led initially by the Khal Drogo, a man who whose extremely long braid signifies that he has never been beaten in battle. A khal is the leader of a band called a khalasar (Drogo is, coincidentally (maybe), the name of Frodo Baggins’s father). The Dothraki are nomads and skilled riders who who literally and figuratively live on their horses and who complement their lifestyles by raiding.

The Aiel of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time are a barbarian (or barbarian-like) people who live in a desert to the east of the main setting of the story. Although to most of the westerners they are barbarians, their civilisation is actually quite advanced. They live by a strict code of honour and women can become warriors – in fact only women can own property, but only men can become clan leaders. They are highly skilled warriors, but never use any weapon that is solely used for combat (ie, swords).

Analysis

Fantasy barbarians are part of the literary tradition of the noble savage. The noble savage (originally, the word savage didn’t have the negative connotations of cruelty and brutality, but indicated ‘wildness’ in the sense of belonging to nature) is an individual from a less technologically advanced culture who yet has an advanced moral sense. It is both a romanticisation of the primitive and a critique of a morally bankrupt western culture. Primitive peoples have been viewed in two opposing ways. There is ‘hard’ primitivism, which posits a tough, brutal life in which people are continually fighting against each other, other tribes, the environment; and there is ‘soft’ primitivism, in which people live simple, pastoral lives and are innocent of the vices of civilisation. The key element to the debate is whether humans are innately moral and good, or whether they require the civilising influence of education, law and religion to make them such.

In terms of fantasy, barbarians are, in a way, doubly appealing. Part of the attraction of fantasy, for many, is that the quasi-medieval settings often portrayed represent a return to a simpler age when life hadn’t been corrupted by technology and good and evil were absolutes that had real meaning. The barbarian represents this desire for a simpler life in its most basic form. The barbarian is a natural man – an animal being with the advantages of sentience, but none of the disadvantages of civilisation. In Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, for instance, the only likeable viewpoint characters – the only ones without moral flaws – are the northmen Logen and the Dogman.

On the other hand, barbarians in fantasy fiction could be seen as representing the Other in the worst way. Most fantasy is Eurocentric; barbarians are from far off lands – usually from the north or the east – which the light of civilisation has yet to illuminate. In The Lord of the Rings – work generally regarded as being the epitome of world-building – swarthy men from the east – Easterlings – fight for Sauron … and that’s pretty much all we know about them.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I think the barbarian is popular because of his (and he usually is a he) status as an outsider who is uncorrupted by the vices of civilisation. He is a strong, fearsome warrior, he is misunderstood, he is quick to anger; he may be selfish, but he possesses a strong moral code that always chooses right in the end. For fans of fantasy – who, as a general rule, are not the bravest, burliest bunch – he is the ideal vessel of escapism.

What other fictional barbarians do you know? What does the barbarian mean to you? I’d love to know what you think.

Monday Masterclass: Non-human Races in Fantasy

A few weeks ago I wrote about elves in some detail, but this week’s Monday Masterclass is an overview of all non-human races in fantasy fiction (and when I say ‘all’, I mean the ones I can think of an find reference to on the internet).

Definition

The term ‘non-human race’ should be pretty clear, but let me make it explicit. What I’m talking about here are creatures that resemble humans in form and intelligence, but are not human. Science fiction and fantasy are full of such humanoids. In sf, these beings’ existence s explained by their having evolved on their own home planets in parallel to humans on Earth (although they may be genetically related by their respective planets having been ‘seeded’ by genetic material aeons ago.

In fantasy, human-like species are generally created – either by gods or by other races.

However, sf and fantasy races are often portrayed in similar ways. Non-human races often have a particular characteristic that defines their whole race – they may be war-like or rustic or wise. Where most people would appreciate humans as a race of great diversity containing many contradictory traits, fantasy races are often personifications of a single characteristic.

Another commonality is that, while any given story may have non-human races in – maybe a great variety of such races and with a great number of non-human individuals – fantasy (and science fiction) stories rarely focus on such races or individuals; generally, it is always humans, humanity and human concerns that form the heart of genre fiction. This is probably due to the fact that readers and viewers can more readily empathise with humans than with other races.

Common Races

Humans
All right – this Masterclass is entitled ‘Non-human Races in Fantasy’, but we can better appreciate such species if we understand humans’ place in fantasy literature. Humans, as I’ve said, are usually the protagonists. They are also generally the most widespread, populous and successful race. I suggested that this may simply be due to humans making better characters for your average reader, but you can’t ignore the possibility that its simple anthropocentrism – even racism. Related to this latter point is the fact that much fantasy is set in a quasi-European environment with Caucasian heroes.

Elves
In the Tolkien tradition (which derives from the Norse tradition), elves are wise, beautiful, rather standoffish beings who are in tune with nature and magic. They often represent the very best qualities that people might aspire to: beauty, skill, wisdom, long life/immortality. In Victorian tradition, they are seen more as diminutive trouble-makers. Terry Pratchett made them distinctly malign predators in his Discworld story Lords and Ladies. J K Rowling had rather pathetic, servile elves in her Harry Potter books.

Dwarves
Dwarves, in Norse mythology, may have originally been a variety of elves (svart alfar or black elves) who lived underground and were skilled makers of things – weapons and other artefacts. In most fantasy fiction, dwarves are thick-set, but short – of a height between humans and halflings. They are skilled miners, stone-workers and smiths. They are famous for wearing beards – even the women, according to Tolkien. They are also fierce warriors.

Hobbits/Halflings
Hobbits are a race of short people that appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They are, on average, only three and a half feet tall, live in a rural idyll and very much enjoy home comforts such as good food. They are a silmple, conservative folk, but ultimately (as evidence by Bilbo, Frodo and the rest) extremely resilient. They are technically humans, being a distant, diminutive branch of that race. While, in terms of literature, they may be exclusive to Middle Earth, they are common in gaming, where they are known (for legal reasons) as halflings.

Orcs
Orcs are a race of ugly, green- or black-skinned humanoids that are generally about the size of a human, although very muscular. They are violent and unsophisticated and generally evil. In Tolkien, they were created by Morgoth (possibly from captured elves) to be evil foot-soldiers. Later depictions of orcs retain their barbaric qualities, but make them less intrinsically malign.

Goblins
Goblins are a diminutive and ugly humanoid race similar to early modern and Victorian depictions of elves (and numerous other fey creatures). They appear in folk tales of many traditions and may have their origins in Hindu literature. Traditionally, they had some magical abilities. In Tolkien, ‘goblin’ is a synonym for ‘orc’. In gaming, goblins are evil creatures bearing a similar relationship to orcs as halflings do to humans.

Giants
Giants are humanoids of great size and strength and have featured in myths and folk tales from many cultures. Mythical giants are often one of the earliest sentient species to have arisen and, as such, have wisdom, but are also antagonistic towards the gods. Fairy tale giants – as in Jack and the Beanstalk – are rather stupid, selfish creatures. The giants of of Stephen R Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are friendly, valiant and wise. In gaming, giants are usually presented only as monsters.

Trolls
Trolls are large, ugly creatures from Norse mythology. They are generally unpleasant and stupid and have featured in many fairy tales, in The Hobbit and in roleplaying games.

Dragons
Dragons were the subject of my very first Monday Masterclass. They – and similar creatures – have been around in mythology and folklore for a long time; Western dragons are usually monsters, while Eastern dragons are usually wise benefactors of mankind. In fantasy, they are a commonly occurring species – although often they lack sentience, and are therefore outside the scope of this article. The dragons of Middle Earth are intelligent servants of evil; other writers have much more sympathetic dragons. Dragons are perhaps the only widely represented non-humanoid sentient race.

Works with Non-human Races

The Wheel of Time
Robert Jordan’s epic series contains a few non-human races, but they are either evil, rare or inhabitants of other dimensions. The evil ones include the Trollocs (which appears to be a portmanteau of troll and orc); these are the orc-equivalents of the world known as Randland and were made from crossbreeding humans and animals. They are taller than humans and have various bestial qualities such as boar heads, hawk heads, goat legs and so on. They are organised in a number of clans.

Their direct masters are a race called Myrddraal, which are Trolloc offspring who resemble their human ancestors. Myrddraal, or Fades, are pale-skinned, eyeless men in appearance and are excellent swordsmen. There is a kind of psychic bond between Myrddraal and Trollocs, so that if a Fade is killed, the Trollocs bound to it suffer debilitating agony.

Ogier are a tall, long-lived race that could be characterised as a cross between elves and giants, with a few dwarf traits thrown in. They grow to about nine or ten feet tall and a 90-year-old Ogier is considered a youth. They have broad mouths and long tufted ears. They love trees and live in magical, localised forests called Stedding; however, they are also legendarily skilled masons and buildings created by them have organic curves. They are reclusive and peaceful, but in the past were known as fierce warriors.

The Eelfinn and Aelfinn are humanoids that have fox-like and snake-like characteristics respectively. They exist other worlds and can only be reached through using magical items. They are difficult to deal with and understand and make bargains with humans that have unforeseen consequences – much like elves of folklore, from which their names appear to be derived.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Steven Erikson’s ten book series (and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s companion books) feature many intelligent, non-human races – which fact illustrates its origin as a roleplaying game setting. They can be divided into various categories.

The invading or foreign races are one that are not native to the world of the Malazan Empire, but originate in the warrens, realms of magic. There are the Tiste Andii, The Tiste Edur and Tiste Liosan – from the realms of Darkness, Shadow and Light respectively. The Tiste races are tall, long-lived and have Asian-like eyes. Their names and origins resemble the original Norse elven races. The fourth foreign race is the Eleint – dragons.

The founding races are native to the world of the Malazan Empire and created civilisation. The Forkrul Assail are an extremely strong, long-lived and quick-healing race that are taller and thinner than humans and have more joints in their bodies. They are famous for adjudicating conflicts by means of killing everyone involved. The Jaghut are another near-immortal race that live in icy environments and are taller and wider than humans and have tusked lower jaws.

The K’Chain Che’Malle are one of the non-humanoid intelligent races in fantasy. They are similar in appearance to bipedal dinosaurs and are divided into two races, long-tails and short-tails – the latter being an engineered race. The K’Chain Che’Malle were the first civilised race in the world. The Imass are a race similar to humans but with golden skin and amber eyes, high cheek bones and heavy brows. They warred with the Jaghut for millennia and eventually made themselves into immortal undead beings in the Ritual of Tellann, becoming the T’lan Imass. The Imass were the ancestors of other races, including the Barghast, Moranth, Trell and humans.

Finally, the Thel Akai were a race of giants that gave rise to the Thelomen Toblakai and other larger than human races.

Orc Analogues

Many works of fantasy have some sort of race that is equivalent to the Orcs of Middle Earth. The Wheel of Time has Trollocs, R Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse meta-series has sranc – engineered, lithe, bestial humanoids that enjoy killing and even raping the open wounds of their victims. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has the Shanka, a brutal, bestial warrior-hunter race. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay has urgach and svart alfar, which appear to be direct analogues of orcs and goblins from Tolkien (Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien on putting together The Silmarillion, so it’s inevitable he drew some inspiration from the creator of Middle Earth).

Fantasy is the literature of good versus evil; these primeval forces require avatars to carry out their ends. On the side of good, we have humans (we like to think), elves, dwarves and so on. The nature of the conflict may be magical or metaphysical in many respects, but, often, it is purely physical. Warfare on an epic scale between humans or beings that closely resemble them on the one hand, and creatures that are morally and physically twisted approximations of humanity on the other, is a mainstay of fantasy stories.

While the presence of intrinsically evil races is a common trope, it also raises certain questions about racism. In as much as the races mentioned above have some intelligence, is it realistic – dare I say fair? – to depict every single individual as irredeemably evil and thus fit for nothing but being hacked to pieces by a hero? Monolithic characterisations of good versus evil arguably reinforces a tribal, us versus them mentality. Stan Nicholls’s First Blood series is rare exception to the rule and reverses the common image to have a band of orcs fighting against humans to save their civilisation.

Conclusion

When used well, non-human races can give a work of fantasy extra colour and vitality, mystery and authenticity. When used poorly, they can be little more than a rehashing of stereotypes. The best fantasy writers tend to use non-human races sparingly, but when they do, they think carefully about the races’ role and history in the world they’ve created. The best non-human races are those that are distinctive, having an alien quality – maybe a subtle one – that differentiates them from both humans and from other non-humans.

These days, it’s difficult to use any of the standard fantasy races (elf, dwarf, orc, goblin) unless you do something vastly different with them. Standard depictions are mostly the province of roleplaying and computer games. On the other hand, being too original can also be a danger – the races can become alienating if their psychologies are difficult to understand – especially if such creatures are fully fledged characters rather than sword-fodder.

And having a race whose sole duty is to be sword-fodder raises other potential problems – if they are intelligent enough to make and use weapons, why aren’t they intelligent enough to form societies, have diplomatic relations with others, have a moral system? The nature of good and evil is a key element of this, and it requires careful consideration of how good and evil forces interact with the world and with each other.

What important non-human races have I left out? What are your favourites (or even least favourites)? What are your thoughts on the subject of non-human races in fantasy?

Monday Masterclass: Top Ten Fantasy Swords

Having looked at the history of swords and King Arthur’s Excalibur in previous weeks, this instalment of Monday Masterclass lists some of the more interesting swords in modern fantasy literature. Most of these weapons are magical – which, naturally, makes them a cut above (pun intended) their mundane counterparts. The non-magical blades have special significance that sets them apart from many other named swords in fantasy fiction. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Callandor

Callandor is one of the key magical artefacts from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. It is also known as The Sword That Cannot Be Touched or The Sword That Is Not a Sword, both soubriquets giving hints as to the sword’s nature. Although it appears to be a crystal sword, it is not a sword, but rather a type of magical object called a sa’angreal, which allows a channeller to wield huge amounts of magical power.

In the distant past, Callandor was placed in a fortress and surrounded by magical wards that prevented anyone except the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of a great leader, claiming it. Rand al’Thor, the hero of the The Wheel of Time takes Callandor thus proving to many people – including himself – that he is the Dragon Reborn. Later, he uses it to single-handedly destroy armies, and prophesies indicate that it will be needed in the forthcoming apocalyptic Last Battle.

Dragnipur

This sword is from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. In appearance it has a black, light-absorbing blade that is six and a half feet long, and a silver hilt with a dragon skull pommel. It was created by an Elder God called Draconus and is wielded by one of the series’ most popular characters, Anomander Rake.

This is another weapon that is far more than it appears – it contains a gate to the Realm of Darkness. Whenever a being is killed by Dragnipur, their soul is transported into the world within the sword, where they find themselves chained to a massive cart, which is being pulled through darkness by all the blade’s victims. The cart contains the gateway to the Realm of Darkness; it is being followed by a terrible storm of Chaos, a storm which is eventually confronted by the sword’s inhabitants.

Inigo Montoya’s Sword

Inigo Montoya is a character from William Goldman’s satirical fairy tale The Princess Bride. He is the son of a master bladesmith who is commissioned by a six-fingered man to make him the perfect rapier. A year later, the six-fingered man returns to pick up his weapon but refuses to pay what Montoya senior asks – and kills him and scars young Inigo on his face, and leaves without his rapier.

Inigo spends the rest of his life training with various master swordsmen, constantly improving his skill – using the rapier made for the six-fingered man. He seek across Europe for the man who killed his father – until the events of the novel finally present him with the chance for vengeance – and the chance to utter the famous line, ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’

Narsil/Andúril

These swords are from J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the extended history of Middle Earth. Narsil was created in the First Age of the world by a dwarf called Telchar. Its name means ‘fire-white light’, referring to the light of the sun and moon. It was wielded by the Man Elendil, who used it to defeat Sauron, but it broke when Elendil fell. Elendil’s son, Isildur, used it to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand.

The shards of the sword became an heirloom of Isildur’s family, until they were reforged to create Andúril, which means ‘Flame of the West’. Its blade is etched with seven stars, the sun and moon and various runes. It glows with the light of the sun and moon. Aragorn wielded Andúril, and, like Rand al’Thor with Callandor, used it to prove his identity as the king of Arnor and Gondor (which nations were thus similarly reforged into a single whole).

Possible Sword

The Possibility Sword is a weapon that appears in China Miéville’s novel The Scar. It is wielded by by Uther Doul (who, of course, shares a name with King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon) and it is a kind of quantum weapon – has the ability to make every possible strike when used. The more likely a particular strike is, the harder the blow delivered. Opponents are therefore cut to ribbons by a single attack.

Sting

Another weapon from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and also from The Hobbit – Sting is actually an elven knife, but is used by the Hobbits Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins as a short sword. It was named Sting by the spiders of Mirkwood Forest, which Bilbo fought, and was found by Bilbo in a Troll-hoard. It glows blue when Orcs are near. It was finally given by Frodo to Samwise Gamgee.

Stormbinger

Stormbringer is the weapon of Erlic of Melniboné, a character featuring in many stories by Michael Moorcock. It is has a black blade carved with runes and was created by the forces of Chaos. It is, in fact, a demon that consumes the soul of – and thus kills – anyone who is injured by it, even slightly. Stormbringer imbues the frail, albino Elric with great strength, but also fills him with great bloodlust, for which reason Elric hates Stormbringer.

Elric and Stormbringer seem to have been a model for Anomander Rake and Dragnipur, mentioned above.

Sword of Gryffindor

The Sword of Gryffindor features in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It was made by a goblin called Ragnuk the First for Godric Gryffindor, one of the founders of Hogwarts. Upon Godric’s death, the goblins believed it should have been returned to them, so from then on they considered it to have been stolen. It has the power to show up whenever it is needed and can absorb things that make it stronger. Thus, when Harry uses it to kill a basilisk, it become impregnated with basilisk venom and gains the power to destroy a horcrux.

Sword of Shannara

The Sword of Shannara features in Terry Brooks’s Shannara novels, including the first, Sword of Shannara. The weapon was made Urprox Screl and incorporated druidic magic and the druidic medallion, Eilt Druin, was forged into the hilt. The sword has the power to reveal the truth of anything. The druid Bremen gave the sword to the elf king, Jerle Shannara, and it subsequently became an heirloom of the royal family. It was used by Jerle to defeat the Warlock Lord by revealing to him the falsity of his belief in his immortality.

Vorpal Sword

The vorpal sword appears indirectly in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the book, Alice finds and reads the poem, ‘Jabberwocky’:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought–
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The word ‘vorpal’ has been interpreted to mean ‘sharp’ or ‘deadly’, or even to be a compound of ‘verbal’ and ‘gospel’. In more recent times, vorpal swords have appeared in various fantasy games, where they have the power to kill an opponent outright, sometimes by beheading.

Conclusion

Swords are the sexiest of fantasy weapons, and its no surprise that authors feature them in their stories. Some are special because of their innate qualities, some because of the stories of their wielders. This list is far from exhaustive, but I think it’s an interesting selection of fantasy sword, showing some common themes and some fascinating innovations.

What other swords from fantasy literature would you add to this list? Post your favourites in the comments.

Sources: Top 10 Badass Swords, Getasword.comWheel of Time Wikia, Encyclopedia Malazica, The Lord of the Rings Wikia, Harry Potter Wikia, Shannara Wikia, Wikipedia.

Monday Masterclass: Excalibur

I was planning to write about swords in fantasy, but any run-down of such a topic has to include at least a mention of King Arthur’s Excalibur. As I read about it, I decided to expand this theoretical mention to an entire post. Swords in modern fantasy fiction will be dealt with in future weeks, but today I’ll look at one of the most important swords in literature.

Etymology

The original tale of King Arthur deals with a Celtic warrior or leader fighting against the invading Saxons. The Saxons eventually pushed the native Britons out to the fringes of the country. The earliest written stories of Arthur are therefore Welsh ones.

The original name of Excalibur appears to be Caledfwlch (a similar name to the Irish mythical sword, Caladbolg), meaning ‘battle breach’ or ‘hard cleft’. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in Latin, changed this to Caliburnus (Anglicised as Caliburn), which was influence by the Latin for ‘steel’, ‘chalybs’.

Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae was very popular in Europe and French writers altered the name again to Escalibor or Excalibur. In the these later re-tellings, the sword was given a folk etymology and was said to mean ‘cut steel’.

Two Swords or One?

There are, of course, two magical swords associated with King Arthur – Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone. The Sword in the Stone was placed in a stone (or an anvil) by Merlin could only be drawn by the son of Uther Pendragon and the rightful heir to the throne. The boy Arthur drew the sword. Later, it broke in battle and had to be replaced. Merlin took Arthur to see the Lady of the Lake, who gave him Excalibur.

Excalibur was first mentioned in relation to Arthur by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who says it was a gift from the Isle of Avalon. Later, Robert de Boron introduces the story of the Sword in the Stone – which apparently was supposed to be Excalibur. Later writers like Thomas Malory give Arthur two separate swords – although Malory confusingly calls both weapons ‘Excalibur’.

As a Latin word for ‘stone’ is ‘saxo’, it could be that the whole Sword in the Stone legend is based on a spelling mistake. The original version could have had Arthur pulling the sword from the dead body of a Saxon.

Description

As Arthur’s first sword broke, Excalibur has the highly useful quality of being unbreakable. It was made by elves, and could cut through iron. Even more usefully, its scabbard makes its wearer impervious to injury. This is a key part of the story, as when Morgan le Fay stole the sword, its scabbard was never recovered, allowing Arthur to be mortally wounded.

Various versions of the Arthur legend say that the sword has a gold hilt carved with dragons or chimeras, or that it has words engraved on either side of the blade – ‘take me up’ and ‘cast me away’, or ‘one edge to defend’ and ‘one edge to defeat’ – or that it shines with a blinding light.

Origins

The Welsh original name of Excalibur, Caledfwlch, has already been mentioned. The Celts regarded many bodies of water as places of magic and often threw swords or other weapons or items of value into them, perhaps as part of a funeral – this is reflected in part of Arthurian legend where, dying, the king tells Sir Bedivere to cast Excalibur back into the lake (Bedivere at first doesn’t do so and lies about what happened; Arthur insists, though, and finally, when Bedivere throws the sword, a hand reaches out of the water to take the sword under).

The story of the Sword in the Stone has a precursor in the Norse myth of Sigmund, who pulls a sword from the trunk of the tree Barnstokk that was placed there by Odin disguised as a one-eyed beggar.

Conclusion

While the swords in many stories may be incidental – granting greater powers to an already great warrior, for instance – Excalibur (and the Sword in the Stone) are integral parts of the legend of King Arthur as we know it (although this wasn’t true of the earliest versions of the tale). Arthur gains legitimacy from possessing the sword, his death is tied to his loss of the scabbard, and when he takes his leave, Excalibur must also be returned to where it came from.

Its sheer fame guarantees that Excalibur has influenced all those writers who have given their heroes magical swords. The sword is a powerful symbol – it connotes authority, justice, violence, martial prowess, chivalry, nobility, killing, execution, protection – so it’s no wonder that it plays such key part in the Matter of Britain and is a stock item of fantasy fiction.

What do you think of Excalibur? What are your favourite swords of myth, legend and fiction? Post a comment and let me know.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Legend of King Arthur, The Camelot Project, Crystal Links, Caerleon Net, Real Armor of God, Britannia History, Timeless Myths.

Monday Masterclass: elves

This week I look at elves – their real-world origins in myths and folk tales, and how they’ve been portrayed in various works of fantasy.

Etymology

The word ‘elf’ comes from the Old English ‘ælf‘, which ultimately probably comes from a Proto-Indo-European root of ‘albh-‘, meaning ‘white’ (also the root of the Latin ‘albus‘). The Germanic word ‘Alp‘, meaning ‘incubus’, is also related to it – it survives in German in the word ‘Alptraum‘ – ‘nightmare’.

The word ‘elf’ is present in various Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian names. ‘Alfred’ means ‘elf-counsel’; ‘Alvin’ means ‘elf-friend’ (and ‘Gandalf’ – the name of a dwarf in the Norse Edda – means ‘wand-elf’). The word ‘oaf’ is a variant of ‘elf’ and used to mean ‘a changeling’ or ‘a foolish child left by the fairies’.

Norse Elves

The elves of Norse mythology were similar to humans in appearance, except for being more beautiful. They were semi-divine beings, possessing supernatural powers. They come in three – or maybe two – or maybe just one type. There are ljósálfar – ‘light elves’, the ‘true’ elves; there are also references to dökkálfar (‘dark elves’) and svartálfar (‘black elves’). These latter may be the same; or one of them (or both) could be another name for dvergar – dwarves. It’s difficult to say for sure as there are few references to elves (of whatever kind) in surviving Norse poetry and prose.

The álfar lived in Álfheimr (‘elf-home’), while the dark elves lived underground or in mountain caves – or, alternatively, in Svartálfarheimr.

Elves were associated with health, fertility and ancestor-worship (and were similar, in this respect, to Roman household deities). Wikipedia has this quotation from Kormáks Saga:

Þorvarð healed but slowly; and when he could get on his feet he went to see Þorðís, and asked her what was best to help his healing.

“A hill there is,” answered she, “not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Kormák killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed.”

Folkloric Elves

From being creatures of great beauty, strength and lore in Norse myths, elves changed during the Middle Ages into mischievous, or downright malignant, creatures of diminutive stature (although there exceptions to this description). The mythos of Norse and Germanic elves combined with Celtic traditions, and also perhaps with the Christian demonisation of anything pagan, to produce a being that was a feature of much literature of the early modern period and into the Victorian era.

The story of the Erlking’s daughter (as set down by Johann Gottfried von Herder) concerns Sir Oluf riding to his wedding when he is distracted by elven music. The Erlking’s daughter tries to seduce him with gifts and gold, but he leaves – though not before she strikes him. The next day, before his wedding, Sir Oluf is found dead.

In ‘The Elf of the Rose’, a Hans Christian Anderson fairy story, the elf of the title, who lives in rose blossoms, witnesses a murder and informs the dead man’s lover of the fact while she sleeps. She finds his head and plants it in a pot with a sprig of Jasmine. Although she dies of grief, her brother – the murderer – is killed by the spirits the a jasmine flower.

It’s possible that the earliest depictions of elves with pointed ears date to the Victorian period.

Other Elves and Elf-like Beings

The word ‘ælf‘ was used in Anglo-Saxon translations of Greek and Roman myths to refer to nymphs. The Icelandic huldufólk (hidden people) could be seen as elves (or dwarves). German folklore has moss people and weisse frauen (‘white women’). In Irish folklore, the aos sí (or daoine sídhe or the sídhe) are similar to elves. Welsh folklore has the Tylwyth Teg.

In the folkloric tradition, elves, fairies, gnomes, pixies, hobgoblins and so on are all hard to distinguish from each other definitively; they are all portrayed more or less similarly as very small, michievous beings. The Christmas Elf derives from the elf of early modern folk tale – although it also has similarities with the dwarf of Norse mythology, which was a skilled craftsman.

Elves in Fantasy Fiction

The line between the fairy tales mentioned about and true fantasy literature is blurred, but it is certain that elves were protagonists and antagonists in genre stories from its earliest days. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany is a tale of cross-cultural marriage and anguish; it dates from 1924. The Broken Sword (1954) by Poul Anderson is a Norse-style story that tells of Skafloc, a half-elf who is captured by elves.

Where Victorian literature portrayed elves as malicious or at least morally ambiguous beings, J R R Tolkien instead took the depiction of elves back to its Norse roots, making them beautiful, noble and partly divine in nature. Tolkien’s writing concerning elves (or Elves – Tolkien capitalises the word; other writers follow suit, but some write it all lower case) spans The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and beyond.

In the mythos of Middle Earth, the Elves awoke in the first age and were eventually discovered by the Valar, who invited them to travel to the Undying Lands. Many of the Elves accepted, but some got lost or otherwise detained on their journey west across Middle Earth. Those who remained were the Elves of the stories of Middle Earth. After the War of the Ring, many of these finally went to the Undying Lands. Those who didn’t apparently degenerated into the elves of folklore – ‘a rustic folk of dell and cave’, according to Galadriel’s prediction.

Tolkien’s elves are immortal (although they may be killed or die of grief), have ‘leaf-shaped’ ears, lack facial hair (apart from Círdan – which may have been a mistake), and have a number of superhuman powers: keen senses, enhanced strength, the ability to read minds and see the future, and the ability to make magical or enhanced items such as the lembas bread and cloaks given to the Hobbits in TLotR.

Elves have appeared in many post-Tolkien novels, in one form or another – many of them either resembling Tolkien’s Elves or deliberately contrasting with them. Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara features Elves, along with along with Men, Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls. The Elfquest comics by Wendy and Richard Pini have elves that are descended from shapeshifting humanoid aliens that have interbred with wolves (which makes them part of the science fiction genre, technically; arguably, one could even say that Vulcans are sf’s elves). In Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, one group of the near-extinct, near-feral elves, or Sithi, seeks to revenge itself by destroying humankind. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series features elves that are decidedly less than benign: they steal children and use enchantment to fool people into thinking they are beautiful.

In both The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner on the one hand, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry on the other, elves – or similar beings – are referred to by their original Norse names of: lios alfar are benign creatures, while svart alfar are evil and more like the goblins of Tolkien’s works. The Malazan Book of the Fallen has three related races – the Tiste Liosan, Tiste Edur and Tiste Andii. They come from, respectively, the warrens of light, shadow and darkness – thus resembling the three kinds of elves mentioned in ancient Norse literature.

Conclusion

Although elves have become a cliché, they are a firm fixture in the wider fantasy genre. While fantasy authors these days don’t write about such beings per se, they are still provide the inspiration for many aloof, nature-loving, magical races. And in the worlds of gaming – be it tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or computer real-time strategy games like Warcraft – elves are an essential part of the experience.

Elves are mysterious, often dangerous, but also steeped in sadness. Tolkien’s elves are wise and stoical, but they live so long and experience so much, that eventually they must retire from the world. The elves of folk tales that trick people and steal children are just as melancholy, yearning for things that will only bring them grief in the long run.

Whatever the future of elves within the genre, it will likely be a diverse one, with a range of portrayals from the traditional (and traditional within different traditions: Tolkienesque, fairy tale, Norse mythology) to the original. So far much of the reimagining of elves has been a reaction against Tolkien and towards a medieval model. I’m sure there’s great scope for doing something completely different with elves – the trick will be to retain their essential elvishness.

Sources: Wikipedia, Malazan Wiki, The True Elves of Europe, Timeless Myths, Ask Nicola, Dictionary.com, MMORPG.com, Fairy Tales Collection, Suite 101.

Monday Masterclass: fantasy sub-genres

This week I will outline the main sub-categories of fantasy. This is not as easy a task as it might appear as many sub-genres overlap, many are more properly sub-sub-genres and others a synonyms of other sub-genres; in further cases, the definition of a sub-genre might be difficult to pin down. The list below is presented in alphabetical order, each entry containing a description, important sub-categories within the sub-genre and examples of stories and authors.

Arthurian Fantasy

Technically, we could put Arthurian fantasy under the heading of historical fantasy, but it’s such an important sub-genre that I think it deserves its own listing. As you would expect, Arthurian fantasy deals with King Arthur and the Matter of Britain.

Arguably, any tale of Arthur and his knights could be classified as Arthurian fantasy – there is no consensus on whether he was a real king of Dark Age Britain, or even a real anything. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae popularised Arthur’s legend back in the 12th century and contained many fantastical elements. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period and Victorian era, the story of King Arthur exercised a great hold on many literary figures from Thomas Mallory (author of Le Morte d’Arthur) to Alfred Lord Tennyson (who wrote Idylls of the King) and Mark Twain (who gave us the satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

In terms of contemporary fantasy there are such works as The Once and Future King by T H White, The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, Haydn Middleton’s Mordred series – and many others. Still other works of fantasy have Arthurian elements to them without being overt re-tellings of the Matter of Britain; these include The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and its sequels.

Comic Fantasy

Comic fantasy is that with the primary goal of making the reading laugh. It combines all the elements of non-fantasy humour – slapstick, wordplay, irony, comedy of errors, surrealism etc – but also very often contains a large dose of satire: specifically satire of the fantasy genre, but also satire of real-world topics.

Comic fantasists often write long-running series of stories involving the same world or characters. They include T H White (The Once and Future King), L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (the Harold Shea stories), Piers Anthony (the Xanth books), Robert Asprin (the MythAdventures books), Terry Pratchett (the Discworld series) and Tom Holt (various books).

Contemporary Fantasy

While some sub-genres of fantasy are very specific, this one is very broad and may contain various sub-categories. Contemporary fantasy is any story set in the present day of something closely resembling our own reality – it’s not actually our own reality because of the presence of some aspect of the fantastic. Contemporary fantasy often overlaps with low fantasy, but the two are not quite the same – contemporary fantasy is tied to our own time and world, where low fantasy is not. Urban fantasy is perhaps the most popular sub-category of this sub-genre.

Contemporary fantasies include J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Neverwhere and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Dark Fantasy

Dark fantasy is a sub-genre containing elements of fantasy and horror. Where characters in a typical fantasy novel might be inspired to awe and wonder by the magical beings and events they witness, dark fantasy protagonists are afflicted with terror. The term dark fantasy has been used as a synonym for horror, but with the proviso that the horror elements are supernatural in nature.

H P Lovecraft’s tales of the Cthulhu Mythos are dark fantasy, as are Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories, Michael Moorcock’s stories of the demonic sword-wielding Elric, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, and many, many horror stories.

Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy is what I think most people would think of as fantasy per se. An epic fantasy story is one set in a secondary world concerning an epochal conflict between good and evil and often involving a quest on the part of the main protagonist. Epic fantasy is high fantasy because magic is an acknowledged part of the mechanics of the secondary world (as opposed to low fantasy, where it’s largely secret); high fantasy is not epic fantasy, however, because epic fantasy refers to a type of story, where high fantasy refers to a type of world. Epic fantasy is also broad in scale, dealing with a number of protagonists in various locations, and usually requires a minimum of three volumes to relate the narrative.

Epic fantasies are among the most famous examples of fantasy literature and include The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R Donaldson etc.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are usually short narratives that involve traditional magical beings such as witches and wizards, elves, trolls, goblins, fairies and so on. They are set in (or taken to be set in) the real world, although the specific location is often vague and unimportant. Some fairy tales have happy endings, some are rather darker; many involve a lesson about morality. Older fairy tales are traditional, but modern writers have either written fairy tales or used fairy tale elements in their fiction.

Madame d’Aulnoy wrote many fairy tales, as did Hans Christian Andersen (the Brothers Grimm, by contrast, collected them). Fairy tale fantasies include Phantastes by George MacDonald, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Re-tellings of fairy tales include The Bloody Chamber (various stories retold from a female point of view) by Angela Carter, Beastly (‘The Beauty and the Beast’) by Alex Flinn and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’) by Terry Pratchett.

Heroic Fantasy

Heroic fantasy is very similar to swords and sorcery – but with less sorcery. It’s a difficult sub-genre to define and distinguish from other types of fantasy – after all, all stories have their heroes, one way or another. It is very similar to epic fantasy, in that it is often a story of the titanic struggle between good and evil – but with special emphasis on the personal struggles of a, usually, larger than life hero or band of heroes.

David Gemmell (the Drenai series) was a practitioner of heroic fantasy, as are writers such as James Barclay (The Chronicles of the Raven trilogy) and Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy).

High Fantasy

High fantasy is another broad category that can encompass many other sub-genres. In a high fantasy story, magic is a widely known and widely present part of the world. The amount of magic shown in the story may be high or low, but it is not a secret nor a surprise that magic should exist; indeed, magic is essential to the world as it is known by its inhabitants. The ‘high’ in high fantasy does not refer to quality in the same way that high art is seen as better or more intellectual, more challenging than low art.

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien is high fantasy, as are The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson and The Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a mixture of both high and low fantasy: in the world-within-a-world that is Hogwarts, magic is commonplace; beyond, in the world of the Muggles, wizardry is a secret.

Historical Fantasy

Again, another broad categorisation that contains many other sub-genres such as Arthurian fantasy, mythic fantasy, gaslamp fantasy (Victorian era fantasy; similar to steampunk but with less emphasis on science and technology), Celtic fantasy, Wuxia (Asian fantasy with an emphasis on martial arts), Medieval fantasy and prehistoric fantasy.

Examples include David Gemmell’s Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince, Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books, Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Last Light of the Sun and Jean M Auel’s Earth’s Children series.

Low Fantasy

In a low fantasy story, magic is a part of the world, but it is either largely a secret, known only to a few individuals with special training or ancestry, or it is simply not an integral part of most people’s lives; in other words, a low fantasy setting is largely a mundane one, but with some magical elements. Low fantasies are often set in the real world, but they don’t have to be; if they are set in a secondary world, that world must be largely mundane, operating on non-magical principles. Low fantasy also tends to be more morally ambiguous than high fantasy. Again, ‘low’ is not an indication of the quality of the literature.

Low fantasies include most, maybe all dark fantasy and supernatural horror stories, a lot of children’s fiction with magical aspects, such as The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and aspects of the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling.

Magic Realism

Magic realism, while it contains fantasy elements, is perhaps not properly thought of as a sub-genre of fantasy as it comes from a different tradition and has different aims. It is the most literary of the sub-categories listed here, and, as is often the case with the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction, its focus is more on the interior life and development of the protagonist, on the quality of language, and on political critique. Another difference is authorial reticence: in a fantasy novel, with that genre’s emphasis on world-building, all the magical aspects of the world will be explained to some degree or other; magic realism will often just let strange events, being etc stand on their own without explication.

Examples of magic realism include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ by Jorge Luis Borges and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

Science Fantasy

Science fantasy is yet another sub-genre that is hard to put an exact definition to. It essentially a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, but the way in which those two elements are combined. There may simply be high-technology and magic present side by side in the world; or the technology could be powered by magic; or the science fictional elements could be presented in a fantasy idiom, or vice versa. The similarity and potential interchangeability of science fiction and fantasy are highlighted by Arthur C Clark’s famous maxim, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

There are a couple of related sub-genres that can be mentioned under this heading. Arcanepunk is a genre in which technology and magic are intimately interconnected, the latter often powering the former; this is a sub-genre often represented in roleplaying and computer games. Hard fantasy (which name is based upon hard science fiction) is a sub-genre in which the magical element of the world is treated in as realistic and rigorous a way as possible – as if it were a physical law alongside gravity and electromagnetism.

Examples of science fantasy include The Book of the New Sun (an example of the dying Earth sub-sub-genre) by Gene Wolfe, The Space Trilogy by C S Lewis, the Barsoom books (also characterised as sword and planet) of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Anne McCaffrey’s dragon-filled, science fictional Pern series.

Superhero Fiction

Another sub-genre that may not belong here, superhero stories are, in some ways, more part of the science fiction genre, but they also have a great deal of fantasy within them. Thor, Hellboy and Spawn are examples of the more fantastical superhero characters.

Sword and Sorcery

As noted above, sword and sorcery is very similar to heroic fantasy. In some ways, sword and sorcery is to fantasy what sci-fi is to science fiction – a somewhat debased, low-brow interpretation of the genre with the emphasis on action, adventure and excitement. Sword and sorcery is high fantasy. It differs from epic fantasy in that S&S stories have a much smaller scale narrative, focusing on the struggle of a single character or small group of characters against some relatively local foe (usually a sorcerer or magical beast); there is no global contest between good and evil; the heroes tend to be motivated by personal gain.

The archetypal sword and sorcery hero is Conan, created by Robert E Howard, but inspiration for the sub-genre goes back to such works as Homer’s Odyssey, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott and the Arabian Nights. Other sword and sorcery tales include Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and Hyperborean stories, C L Moore Jirel of Joiry stories and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a sub-category of contemporary fantasy that is specifically set in cities – although it could take place in the past, present or future. Vampires and similar folkloric beings are often protagonists or antagonists in urban fantasy; the heroes are often detectives of one kind or another. The urban fantasy genre often overlaps with that of paranormal romance.

Among the many urban fantasy titles are Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and The City & the City by China Miéville.

Weird Fiction/the New Weird

The original weird fiction was that produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by writers such as H P Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and M R James and is a mixture of fantasy, horror and science fiction. The term came about largely because those three genres hadn’t yet acquired those names let alone any fixity of definition. Early in this century, this blurring of genre lines has enjoyed a resurgence and writers have started describing their work as the New Weird. Sub-genres such as slipstream – that which combines or falls between sf and fantasy – and bizarro fiction – that which employs surrealism, satire and the grotesque – are closely related.

Weird stories include Books of Blood by Clive Barker, King Rat by China Miéville, City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer and Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk.

Conlusion

Like any genre worth its salt, fantasy is a broad church, as I hope the above list of definitions and examples illustrates. It’s also one that has undergone a lot of change. While the fantastic is, arguably the oldest of all literature (think of the Old Testament or the epic of Gilgamesh), it has only existed as an identifiable genre for maybe 150 years (going back to George MacDonald) – or 60 years as a marketing genre. In its recent history, the boundaries of fantasy have evolved from the amorphousness of weird fiction to the rigidity of high versus low fantasy to a new permeability with slipstream and the New Weird. The inclusion of magic realism and superheroes, of elements of horror, science fiction and even romance show that fantasy can be all things to all men (and women, of course).

What are your favourite sub-genres of fantasy? What sub-genres have I neglected to mention? Are genres and sub-genres even relevant to today’s authors and readers? Speak your brains by posting a comment below.