Your Illustrious Ancestors
We're getting close to the end of this Kickstarter! Please make sure you've shared our Kickstarter graphic on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram! With three days left we still want to close out our second stretch goal and print issue #2 on vintage paper stock as well.
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
- Striking the Balance
- Horror in Sword-and-Sorcery
- Valen the Outcast
And for today's essay we present...
Your Illustrious Ancestors
By James Enge
Nobody can read everything. But, if you want to write, you should read a lot. Nothing is more insufferable than the person who wants everyone to read their work, but they don’t actually bother to read anything themselves. You don’t want to be that person. Because their writing always sucks. (They haven’t read enough to spot a cliché when they see it, for one thing.)
Finding fantasy to read is a lot easier than it used to be. Let me set myself down here on this cracker-barrel, and adjust my corn-cob pipe in my mouth, and explain how rough we had it in the old days—say, before 1977.
In 1977, Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannarra was published, inaugurating the golden age of Big Fat Fantasy Novels, which we still presently live in. Whether one is a fan of the novel or not doesn’t matter: its enormous enduring success proved that epic fantasy wasn’t just the private amusement of some elderly British philologist that happened to stumble into print. Epic fantasy was a commercial category of fiction that readers were crying out for. Their cries were answered, and we are where we are.
But before Shannarra, fantasy readers had to comb a lot of bookshelves, looking mostly for reprints of older work. Science fiction was what writers like Poul Anderson and Andre Norton and Fritz Leiber mostly made a living at. They wrote fantasy only when the opportunity occasionally arose.
The best of the reprint series was unquestionably the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line edited by Lin Carter. As a writer Lin Carter was, eh, let’s say a prisoner of his influences. But as a fantasy editor he really had no peer, turning out volume after volume of classic but sometimes neglected fantasy—early work by Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell; lost classics like Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist; new work by Joy Chant and Katherine Kurtz.
And Carter published a couple of anthologies (Dragons, Elves, and Heroes and Golden Cities Far) gathering together much older work, some it going back to the earliest literature that survives.
It makes sense. If you like dragons and monsters, why not read the oldest set of those stories in English (i.e. Beowulf)? Before there was epic fantasy, it was just epic and it was full of the impossible heroic stuff I loved. I started roistering my way through this stuff as a teenager and I’ve never really stopped, and never intend to.
For one thing, reading older work can give you a new sense of possibility. Different cultures tell stories in different ways, ways that may be new to us, even if they’re very old in the world. Then, too, it’s a tremendously rich storehouse of ideas, stories, even names, that you can loot for your own purposes. (The central plot problem of my story “The Red Worm’s Way” was stolen shamelessly from Book 2 of Apuleius’ Transformations, and I lifted a few bits from Homer and Vergil for my Magician’s Skull story, “The Guild of Silent Men.”)
No one could read everything that’s out there (new or old). But if I were just going to recommend a few old-to-ancient works for fantasy writers to read, I guess I would certainly name the Mabinogion. It’s a varied compendium of really weird stories, some of them familiar, some of them not.
Another compendium of folklore is Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, at least the first two parts. It’s Old Norse literature at its friendliest and is at or near the heart of that chilly wonderland that C.S. Lewis called “the Northern Thing.”
A great book that used to be better known in English is Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. It’s about – it’s about practically everything, but the thread weaving all the various episodes into one story is the tale of Charlemagne’s greatest knight, Roland, and how he went crazy because of love. There are epic battles, sinister sorceries, love, hate, vile betrayals, heroic deeds, trips to paradise, to hell, and to the moon – pretty much everything you need for a great fantasy novel. Ariosto doesn’t take any of it seriously, but he always knows what he’s doing and does it well.
Another book (familiar to many, but new to me) is the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, in which the Monkey King travels the wide world to gain wisdom and superpowers and defeat the Monster King. That brings us to chapter 2. A weird and dazzling book.
You can’t pick your ancestors, the people whose parts were cobbled together to make you. But you can pick your influences, decide what part of the literary tradition you’re going to extend into the future. It could be Bob, your beta-reader in Dubuque who never gets tired of Firefly references. But it could also be the Monkey King, or Väinämöinen, or the Deer Woman.
Bob won’t mind.