Brian Murphy’s Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery

Brian Murphy’s Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery

by Bill Ward

In Flame and Crimson (2019) Brian Murphy has crafted no less than the first book length history of the sword-and-sorcery genre, from its origins and antecedents right down to its reflection in the popular culture of the present day. It is a work both indispensable and long overdue, one that fills a gap in our collective bookshelves while establishing an academic and historical baseline for discussion of sword-and-sorcery going forward. But Murphy also accomplishes the most difficult task of all, balancing the need for critical rigor with readability, and the result is a book that not only provides a compelling and comprehensive view of its subject, but is also as fun to read and impossible to put down as the classic stories referenced in its pages.

I’ve been familiar with Murphy’s work as an essayist and blogger for something like a decade now, both from his personal blog The Silver Key and from his appearances on websites and in magazines such as Black Gate, Skelos, and The Cimmerian, and I’m pleased to say that my already high expectations for Flame and Crimson were met and more than exceeded. Remarkably in something so well structured and paced, this is Murphy’s first book – hopefully, the first of many.

While Flame and Crimson is a serious academic look at the subject of sword-and-sorcery over the years, again it seems worth stressing that it is eminently entertaining in the best un-put-downable style, as much so as any of the successful popular academic works of history or biography that exist for the curious laymen. It isn’t bound by in-group jargon, or require some esoteric knowledge to appreciate – indeed, Murphy fills in all the gaps for you, not only providing a coherent narrative for the whole history of the field, but numerous sidebar asides that illuminate everything from finer points of literary analysis to sword-and-sorcery’s influence on Heavy Metal. 

Organized chronologically, with chapters focused on discreet periods such as the heyday of the Weird Tales era or the boom years of the 60s and 70s that saw sword-and-sorcery elevated to near-ubiquity in not only the publishing world but in all of pop culture, Flame and Crimson also manages to provide mini literary biographies for the major figures of each period, along with critical analysis of their important works, and controversies literary or otherwise that arose in these times. Murphy doesn’t hesitate to make his own assertions on various points, giving us the benefit of his curatorial taste and broad knowledge in his recommendations of major works and artists. He is also happy to make definite claims backed by well-reasoned argument, such as labeling Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom” as the first true sword-and-sorcery story, demonstrating the useful division of the genre’s protagonists into the categories of heroic and anti-heroic, and crediting Frank Frazetta’s elementally arresting artwork as one of the major factors in the rebirth of the genre in the 60s. He even weighs in on the deCamp and Carter Conan pastiche controversy in probably the most even-keeled and sober exploration of the subject I’ve read to date.

There is a great deal to discover in Flame and Crimson, everything from fanzine discussions and literary feuds, to marketing shenanigans and forgotten classics. Murphy even brings us up to date, looking not only at sword-and-sorcery’s ‘afterlife’ in video games and D&D, 80s films, and Xena Warrior Princess, but also focusing extensively on recent genre works and, especially, on efforts to carry the torch into the future for new generations of fans. Contemporary sword-and-sorcery practitioners like Howard Andrew Jones and James Enge are highlighted, and the new wave of specialist publishers like Rogue Blades, DMR Books, and Goodman Games are all featured – with our very own Tales From the Magician’s Skull given special mention. 

I’ve been searching high and low for this book for years, but of course, no one had written it yet! I’m glad Brian Murphy finally did because he has produced no less a seminal work than Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds (1973) or Don Herron’s The Dark Barbarian (1984). In recent decades we’ve had some amazing essays and deep scholarship in the field, and a first-rate biography of Robert E. Howard (Mark Finn’s Blood & Thunder), but no one had filled the real need for a single volume, narratively coherent history of sword-and-sorcery until Flame and Crimson. But make no mistake, Murphy’s book isn’t simply good because it’s necessary, it’s indispensable because it’s magnificent.

Flame and Crimson is published by Pulp Hero Press, and can be found from the usual online booksellers.

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