Brian Murphy’s Gateways to Sword-and-Sorcery
by Brian Murphy
Growing up I lacked access to sword-and-sorcery fiction. Stories of muscled barbarians and curvaceous women clinging to mighty thews were available only in drugstore wire-spinners or in the adult section of the local public library. Both were sadly out of reach of my meager allowance and the limited access afforded by my juvenile library card. If it didn’t exist in the elementary school library, or on my parents’ modest bookshelves, I wasn’t reading it.
But I can’t say I was particularly deprived, however, because I did have access to several wonderful children’s books. In hindsight, these books fostered my love of fantasy, in particular heroic and weird fiction. I haven’t properly acknowledged them as influences, but now recognize them as hugely influential on my development as a reader of speculative fiction.
Writing this essay was at times fun, a turns frustrating, but also a revelation, in the literal sense of that word. I had only shadowy recollections of some of these titles, until the wonders of Google brought half-remembered book covers and faded plots back to vivid life once again. Tracking down some of these books via a modern search engine reaped rewards. For example, “1970s monster book with orange spine and black and white movie stills” eventually led me to Monsters by Crestwood House, of which I had but a dim visual memory. But at least one of these searches (see below) came up empty.
I won’t bother summarizing the plots of these books, only what I took away from them, and held on to. And for reasons of space I’m limiting the list to five. Many others, including the likes of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and Susan Cooper’s Over Sea and Under Stone, captured my imagination as well, but in hindsight not as sharply and vividly as these five/six titles. Another major influence was the Dungeons and Dragons manuals and Dragon Magazine, which I consumed with a near religious fervor. But that’s a post for another day.
Fire-Hunter, Jim Kjelgaard. I had actually forgotten this one entirely until someone in a Facebook group I frequent posted the cover. For a moment I felt like I had touched with a cattle-prod. This story of a young cro-magnon hunter named Hawk, overcoming sabertooths and warring tribes and stifling tradition with courage and innovative technology made a huge impact. I remember trying to build my own throwing stick, with mixed success.
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. My fifth grade teacher had us listen to a recording of this most excellent adventure in class, and our subsequent assignment was to create a collage out of colored paper to decorate the walls of the classroom. Many went for Bilbo, dwarves, elves, or Gollum; I picked Beorn and gave him a double-bitted axe. Thanks Mr. Babine. The Hobbit remains the definitive children’s adventure and is likely never to be knocked from that perch.
Monsters (Crestwood House). More so than the workmanlike text, the pictures in these books made a lasting impact. I remember King Kong’s eyes burning with anger at being wrested from his home on Skull Island, the Werewolf pursuing his prey on a mist-shrouded moor, and Lon Cheney’s Dracula in his gothic castle.
Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves & Things. This one scared the ever-loving crap out of me as a kid… and I loved it. Of all the books on this list, this one perhaps left the most lasting impression. This is one that I want to bite the bullet and buy, but the prices I’ve seen have caused me to think twice. The black-and-white illustrations by Franz Altschuler are wonderfully haunting, and the stories gripping, sometimes with gruesome, unhappy endings for the protagonists.
Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott. I can’t quite place the volume I read back in grade school, which was a kids’ illustrated version, hardcover, with a knight (presumably Ivanhoe) in full helm. I found it stirring adventure and romance. I loved the scene where the mysterious Black Knight (King Richard I, in disguise) and Cedric chop at the gates of Torquilstone with axes, braving arrows and rocks hurled by defenders. I was moved by Rebecca’s bravery, holding out from marrying her abductor, the Templar knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and her conflicted love for Ivanhoe that could not be consummated.
There is a sixth that I had planned to mention, but alas, my memory of this title has utterly failed me, and likewise my internet search-fu has turned up empty. I know it was non-fiction, but with gripping stories told from the viewpoint of warriors on the battlefield. It contained stories of the Crusades and perhaps additional ancient battles, as I seem to recall reading about Roman legionaries beating back a wild horde of Goths by hurling pila into their shields, dragging down their protection, and finishing them with thrusts of their short-bladed gladius. But I may be conflating two books. I do recall vividly the story of Richard the Lionhearted standing stock still in his stirrups, sword upraised, as a Saracen champion came on. Then a flash of the blade that cleaved mail and shoulder and tumbled his opponent from his horse into the dust of the desert. This book inspired me to draw pitched battles and build a suit of cardboard armor. If you have any insight into the title of this book, please write me.
In hindsight I can see how I was being inevitably steered toward sword-and-sorcery by consuming its various components; historical elements, grit and danger, monsters, tough and resourceful heroes, horror, and the weird. I am grateful to have had access to books that moved me, exposed me to grim struggle, even disturbed me. Here’s a PSA for parents of young children: A few bad dreams are OK if the reward is making a lifelong reader.
Within a year or so of consuming the titles in this list I would discover Robert E. Howard in the pages of The Savage of Sword of Conan, and my path was fixed. But I have these gateway books to thank for getting me started down that savage trail.
Brian Murphy is the author of Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery (Pulp Hero Press, 2020). Learn more about his life and work on his website, The Silver Key.