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:
- Defining Sword-and-Sorcery
- Sword-and-Sorcery's Grandfather
- Dynamic Duos of Fiction
- Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Two Who Sought Adventure
- The Dark Tower of Jaquays
- The Three Ms: Writing Horror in Sword & Sorcery
- Celebrating Robert E. Howard
- It Came From Appendix N: Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows
- Celebrating Leigh Brackett
- By the Sword: Adding Realism to Sword and Sorcery Combat
- Finding Sword and Sorcery
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.