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A magazine of all-new swords & sorcery fiction in the classic pulp style!
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Striking the Balance

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Essays on Sword and Sorcery

As part of this Kickstarter we are presenting essays on sword-and-sorcery fiction written by our contributors. If you pledge at the Legion of the Skull level, you'll get these nifty essays in a printed bonus album! Here are the previous essays:

And for today's essay we present...

Striking the Balance

By Bill Ward

It’s been nearly 40 years since Poul Anderson’s essay “On Thud and Blunder,” in which the author of such classics as The Broken Sword and The High Crusade took certain practitioners of heroic fantasy to task for their lack of a realistic approach. In his essay (which you can read for free online), Anderson rightly points out that a horse is not a motorbike, a sword does not weigh fifty pounds, and that the pre-modern age is a dark, dangerous, and very different place from our own familiar world. It’s a great, entertaining read, and still surprisingly relevant today – indeed, just when I start thinking fantasy has moved beyond some of Anderson’s more elementary pronouncements, I see something like the most recent seasons of Game of Thrones and realize that the Thud, well, it just keeps on Blundering.

But there is a trap inherent in this realistic approach, a trap that threatens to dispel the very magic of fantasy in the first place. Somewhat fittingly, Anderson himself fell into this trap in a scene forever burned into my mind in the pastiche novel Conan the Rebel. In it an imprisoned Conan, quite realistically, exercises in his prison to stay in shape. Verisimilitude, that thing that Anderson wants to create in fantasy by paying attention to agrarian economies and the speed of sailing vessels, is completely and utterly lost when realism in the form of a barbarian conqueror doing “deep knee bends” comes crashing headfirst into tone, and tone loses.

Because here is the thing with fantasy – it isn’t simply history dressed up in fancy clothing, it’s actually part of the tradition of mythic storytelling. Fantasy is more Homer than Gibbon, and always will be. And just as it is vital to avoid silliness like baled hay and indefatigable horses in fantasy, it is equally as important to maintain the tone and resonance of myth.

It is, in many ways, the conflict between intellect and emotion. There are an almost infinite amount of “realistic” details one can include in a story, but stories are not real life. True suspension of disbelief isn’t asking a reader to believe that what he is reading is real, it is conspiring with the reader to create an emotionally satisfying story that doesn’t provoke doubt or call attention to itself. Completely unrealistic fantasy worlds are one way to provoke this doubt, as Anderson said. But so to is rendering banal that which should be elevated.

King Arthur never complained of toothache, Odysseus didn’t clip his nails, and Gilgamesh never once took a bathroom break. We can only believe in these characters when they are tonally consistent with their own nature as heroes in a story. We know it is a story, we never lose sight of that fact, and by having them behave ‘more realistically’ we paradoxically undermine their own vital nature within the story itself. Hence, it is far easier to believe in a Conan who fights sorcerers and demons than in one who does aerobics.

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    1. Mick Gall on

      As someone into exercise who bought a book called "Convict Conditioning" about how to get jacked just doing bodyweight exercises, I liked that little detail!
      But yes, I take your point. I think that's a criticism of some of the poorer "grimdark". There's no hope, everyone is super poor and super cutthroat, and everything's covered in shit.
      Speaking of, I've read the occasional book where it seems like they went out of their way to document every bowel movement along the journey... once for verisimilitude is probably fine, but no more...