Introduction to Sword & Sorcery


I’ve been reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series to my son and my wife over the last couple of weeks. My wife is familiar with them, but they are complete new to my son, and he’s enjoying them immensely.

However, I’ve found that there are opportunities for me to read to my son when my wife is not available (she runs a board game group, for example), and so I needed something else to read to him during those times. Last week, I decided to introduce him to some sword & sorcery classics, in the form of short stories by some of the greatest s&s writers who ever lived.

I started with a Conan story, of course. Now, there are a many Conan stories that contain problematic language in the form of racist diatribes and misogynistic ideas. On the one hand, I think that these stories should be read in the context in which they are written—Robert E. Howard wasn’t alive during the civil rights movement, and his beliefs were shaped by when and where he lived. On the other hand, some passages in his stories are just vile, and I’m not sure I want to say those things out loud to my 12-year-old son.

So I started with the most innocuous story I could think of off the top of my head, The Tower of the Elephant. This story takes place early in Conan’s career, and really drips with flavor in the descriptions of the setting and the tower that Conan decides to plunder.

My son enjoyed the story, but afterwards he commented that there “wasn’t that much to it.” When I asked what he meant, he said that after the cool battle with the spider, Conan really doesn’t face any other difficulties. My son was actually looking forward to an epic fight with the sorcerer, but there isn’t one, and he felt the ending was really anticlimactic.

This was his first exposure to any Conan story, and I found his comment interesting. He’s right, of course, the “excitement” ends after Conan kills the spider. After that, there is tension, and mystery, but it really amounts to the alien telling Conan to “take this, go here, and win.” And then Conan does exactly that, and wins without any further challenges.

It’s still a great story in my view, especially because of Howard’s prose. But one of the reasons I love reading to my son is that I get to see some of these novels and short stories through the eyes of someone who has never been exposed to any of it before.

I followed it up with the story Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber. I have the complete run of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories in paperback and they are some of my favorites. Like Howard, Leiber’s prose is wonderful, but its appeal comes from a different place. Leiber is a master of friendly banter and elaborate verbal explanations from the titular characters, and it’s a pleasure to read it out loud—it flows just as wonderfully off the tongue as it does off the page.

My son found Ill Met in Lankhmar to be more compelling than the Conan story. He really took a liking to the Grey Mouser right away, and he cared about how they fared in a way that didn’t happen with the Conan story.

So I talked to my son about the two stories and what he liked about each one, and didn’t like.

He felt The Tower of the Elephant was neat, and the alien creature was very cool. But he felt that there wasn’t really much to the character of Conan himself. He said that you could take any other strong warrior character and slip him in there, and the story would be essentially unchanged. It wasn’t Conan himself that made the story, but the things he encountered.

On the other hand, Ill Met in Lankhmar couldn’t be about anyone but Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Their unique personalities are what drive the story, and they are more than just the vehicle by which you experience the city of Lankhmar. In Lieber’s story, my son wasn’t entirely sure at any point that they were going to escape unscathed (and you can argue, after the deaths of Ivrian and Vlana, that they don’t escape unscathed at all).

Between the two stories, my son really wanted to know what happens to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser next. He’d be okay with more Conan stories, but doesn’t care if I choose something else instead.

At this point, my son is not quite ready to appreciate the prose of Robert E. Howard on its own merit, and perhaps there are better stories with which I could have introduced the character. But I find it’s an interesting reaction between the two.

It reinforces the idea that character is a vital element of any good story. Even the most action-packed tale can feel as if it’s missing something if there isn’t good characterization.

This week, as part of this introduction to sword & sorcery literature, I’m going to read a couple of the original Thieves’ World stories to my son. I believe he’ll enjoy these as well, but sometimes he surprises me. I managed to find the complete collection of original Thieves’ World paperback books at a used bookstore last year, and I haven’t read any of these to my son yet. So I’m really looking forward to this.

And then there is always the Elric stories. I think I might wait a bit before diving into those, however. I have a feeling they won’t be enjoyed quite as much as the pair from Lankhmar.

What was your introduction to sword & sorcery literature? What elements about these stories, especially the many short stories that make up a great deal of the genre, appeal to you the most? Tell us about it in the comments.

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