Bill Ward’s Gateways to Sword-and-Sorcery
by Bill Ward
My mind quests back to the hazy era of orange shag carpets and fondue parties, to an age that saw the Dawn of the Chia Pet, the Rise of the Rubik’s Cube, and the Coming of the Walkman. It was a time of social and technological transformation, not that the child-sized version of me cared, because it was also the beginning of a boom in popular entertainment that saw fantasy and science fiction achieve new levels of sophistication and cultural significance and I was much too busy sucking it all in like a sponge. But where along the line did I yank the Sword from the Stone, pocket the One Ring, or discover the Book of Gold in Ultan’s Library? From whence came this predilection for tales of savage lands and dark imagination?
When Brian Murphy devised our Gateways to Sword-and-Sorcery series, the prospectus was clear: reminisce about the childhood books that sparked your love of the sword-and-sorcery genre, those books that, while most likely not sword-and-sorcery themselves, captured our young imaginations and gave us all a permanent itch that only a bloodied saber could scratch. But in tracing my way from my earliest enthusiasms to now, from Stegosaurus to Stormbringer as it were, many of the most significant influences came from the worlds of film and gaming.
Film, because it was something of a Golden Age for entertaining science fiction and fantasy cinema, the zeitgeist-shifting breakout explosion of Star Wars heralding an age of heroic storytelling and the next level of practical special effects. When John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian smashed its b-movie chains and saw a good return at the box office, the film industry went through a similar Conan-imitation phase as had the paperback industry in prior decades, and my movie-going and video-renting youth would forever be enriched by titles such as The Beastmaster and Deathstalker. But even the bigger budget films of the era succumbed to fantasy fever, and the decade of the 80s produced an array of dark fantasy classics in Dragonslayer, Excalibur, Krull, Clash of the Titans, Ladyhawke, The Neverending Story, Legend, and Willow; and I loved all of ’em.
But when I wasn’t watching animatronic monsters and corn syrup blood effects on screen, I was pouring over the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide with all the fervent intent of an accountant cramming for the CPA exam. Dungeons & Dragons’ impact on me as an 11 year old was as thoroughly profound as its impact on gaming or pop culture in general; it changed everything. The very nature of an RPG shifts things from a narrative abstract to the realm of the personal – all of a sudden fantasy worlds and adventures weren’t the subject of passive entertainment and idle musing, they were a world that my friends and I could now actively experience first hand. And it was a sword-and-sorcery world that we found ourselves in with our high, hard boots and impractical polearms, a world where every kill and every coin made you stronger, where nobility of spirit often took second place to expectation of a reward, and the sincere thanks of the village elder was less important than the pot of silver buried under his bed. Without this shift to make fantasy personal, to allow the audience to become the protagonists, I’m not sure if I would have ever even developed an urge to write fantasy – at least, I certainly would not have gotten in all that good practice as a Dungeon Master creating lairs, villains, plots, and whole secondary world histories for my players to ignore while they went off to do something unexpectedly silly like buy up all the piglets in town or fling rocks at trees in the local forest in an attempt to provoke the emergence of a dryad. I could see Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser getting caught up in such schemes, but certainly not Aragorn son of Arathorn.
Fantasy was in the air in those days, at least for us kids it was, directly setting the stage for its present popularity. The other side of the speculative coin, science fiction, was probably even bigger, it certainly took up more rack space and garnered more box office, and most of the used paperbacks that formed the nucleus of my teenage library were works from writers such as Asimov, Niven, Heinlein, Chalker, Herbert, Anthony, and Bradbury. I loved Tolkien, but was dubious about most of the fat fantasy books that sprouted in imitation of him. But some of the early books I read, many of them associated with a media brand, taught the lesson that there was more to the genre than small folk on big adventures – there was a world of rogues, dastards, mad savages, and wild magic in the Robert E. Howard wing of the big house of fantasy and I was steadily making progress toward it. Here are some of the guideposts I followed along the way:
The Hobbit (1938) J.R.R. Tolkien
Expect to see this on nearly every list. One of my earliest memories was of watching Rankin-Bass’s The Hobbit cartoon on television with utter absorption and I suspect it was that, more than anything, that bestowed the lifelong genre-geas upon me. The Hobbit would be the first book I ever bought, and I can still picture the ubiquitous orange Ballantine paperback with the classic Darrell Sweet “Gandalf and the Eagles” cover looking up at me from the bookmobile shelf as I was the last person in my third grade class to make up their purchasing mind that day. The first of many book buys, the first of many times I’d be the last one done browsing, and the first wholly absorbing secondary world tale that swept me up in the fundamental power of its creative imagination. Like opening a mainline vein straight into a world of myth and legend, The Hobbit was a children’s book from an era that still allowed for a level of sophistication in its young audience and that’s just one of the many reasons for its timeless appeal.
Dungeon of Dread (1982) Rose Estes
The first of two ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style books on this list, though neither were from the official CYOA line. Another big trend in the entertainment culture of my youth, and yet another medium that blurred the lines between books and games and put the audience in the role of the protagonist. Dungeon of Dread was part of a licensed D&D tie in line called Endless Quest, the first six of which were written by Rose Estes, capitalizing on the popularity of CYOA. It was TSR’s Star Frontiers that first captured my youthful gaming allegiance, and reading the Star Frontiers Endless Quest1 books got me interested in the D&D versions. This was my first plunge into that exciting world that I’d been skirting the edges of in ever-increasingly small concentric circles of curiosity, and everything about it seemed new and strange as I devoured it at my local library. A dungeon crawl full of kobolds, orcs, goblins, bugbears, giant ants, rust monsters, dragons – it’s a Who’s Who? of Monster Manual alumni culminating in a showdown with an evil wizard. The most memorable scene for me, depicted beautifully by the great Larry Elmore cover, was the emergence of the Water Weird from a well in the dungeon – literally the first time in my young life that I’d seen ‘weird’ used in a non-colloquial sense.
The Badlands of Hark (1985) R.L. Stine
Few things got my little heart pumping like the Scholastic Books catalog being passed around in Elementary School, and you can bet I drew a careful circle around every book that had a shark, Archaeopteryx, or Roman Legionary on the cover. But what’s this, a sci-fi ‘Choose Your Own Adventure?’ R.L. Stine has had a massive career in children’s fiction, but Badlands and its sequel, Invaders of Hark, are the only two works of his that I encountered as a kid, and I adored them. Termed gamebooks, the conceit of these two books is that you weren’t supposed to just flip back to the last branching decision before you die, but go back to the start – and, if my memory is correct, they were actually written in a way to make it less likely that you could easily go back to your ‘save point.’ The story of a solo treasure hunter on an unforgiving alien world, the book was brutal, with death hovering around every decision. As frustrating as some of the arbitrary fatalities the player was faced with were, they were also utterly compelling and entertaining in their own right. I’d probably call this sword-and-planet, but a lone wolf mercenary stalking a bleak and bizarre landscape surviving death at every turn is the stuff of sword-and-sorcery without a doubt.
The Dragonlance Series (1984+) Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
More gaming tie-in fiction from TSR in-house writers – only this time it’s a lightning-in-a-bottle breakout hit that established the long-term careers of both authors and made Dragonlance a household name that even appealed to people that had never so much as picked up a polyhedral. With big world-shaking events and a large cast of characters, no one would categorize Dragonlance as sword-and-sorcery. But its gaming fiction roots – Dragonlance is essentially the novelization of a series of D&D modules – ensured the presence of a pulp adventure element that put a lot of emphasis on episodic action. Dragonlance showed that there was more than one way to pace a fantasy trilogy, and that writers were better off using Tolkien’s model as inspiration rather than as a blueprint.
Realms of Fantasy (1983) Malcolm Edwards & Robert Holdstock
One day in the late-eighties my father, a man with little interest in either books or fantasy, came home from work one day with a nice used copy of Realms of Fantasy tucked under his arm – a beautifully illustrated large format hardcover that is probably one of the most important touchstones in the development of my reading tastes. If many books prove to be Gateways to Sword-and-Sorcery, Realms of Fantasy offered a sketch map for when you crossed the threshold. Offering a concise survey history of fantasy while keeping the focus on around a half-dozen major works, complete with a bibliography of the stories discussed (in other words, a shopping list!), evocative art from a host of talented artists (including my lifelong favorite fantasy artist Ian Miller2, whose work in various Warhammer publications had always fascinated me), and a great narrative and critical treatment of dozens of classic works of fantasy, including those specifically deemed sword-and-sorcery.
Prior to Realms of Fantasy, I only had an amorphous mishmash of authors, titles, and terms swimming around in my skull to put description to the fantasy genre; afterwards, I had a foundation to build on. As a teenager at the time, I was blazing my way through entire shelves of science fiction and horror with only a bit of fantasy sprinkles on top, but now I knew which books and stories to look for and how they related to others in the genre. Divided by story setting (the ‘Realms’ of the title), Realms of Fantasy approaches its survey of the fantasy genre by focusing on the extraordinary acts of secondary world creation by the masters of the art. While each chapter focuses on one major work, related works are highlighted – for example the ‘Mars’ chapter focuses on Barsoom, but also highlights the Martian works of Leigh Brackett, C.S. Lewis, and Ray Bradbury.
This was the book that introduced me to future favorite authors Mervyn Peake and Gene Wolfe, it was the first time I’d ever heard about Earthsea, The Night Land, or The Dying Earth, and it put characters like Conan and Elric into literary context. In a lot of ways it was the capstone to my early reading – I wasn’t really still a young reader at this point, skipping lunch to read Orwell or LeCarre or A Canticle for Leibowitz in the High School Library – but Realms of Fantasy was the prism through which the undifferentiated bright glow of my childhood enthusiasm was brought into the kind of beam-strength focus that I would use to light the path ahead.
1Villains of Volturnas by Jean Blashfield in particular. In researching some of the Endless Quest line for this review I learned that they actually had several books set in the Hyborian Age, but somehow I missed them completely. So close!
2 Many years later I would have the distinct and somewhat surreal pleasure of seeing a story of my own illustrated by the great baroque genius and Master of All Things Gribbly Ian Miller. You can see it too in the first issue of Tales From the Magician’s Skull.