A Brief, Personal History of Heroic Fantasy
Sometime around 1977 Ballantine found a way to reach the Tolkien readers when Lester del Rey, then a consulting editor for the publisher, read the manuscript of The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks. Following the success of Brooks’ fantasy novel, del Rey founded his own fantasy imprint and moved forward with his line of written-to-order, mass-marketed series. These books would be original novels set in invented worlds in which magic works. Each would have a male central character that would triumph over evil by his wits, innate virtue, prowess as a warrior, and with the help of a tutor or tutelary spirits. Fantasy novels and series with deeper themes and much more complex characters, dealing with human drama on a personal level began to appear, novels that stood at the opposite end of the spectrum from Howard’s Conan stories.
Among my personal favorites of this era are Stephen R. Donaldson’s Tolkien-inspired, but highly original with Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War, and The Power That Preserves, and their subsequent sequels. These featured Covenant, a modern-day leper suddenly drawn to another world: he is anything but a hero — he is an anti-hero, and this series was far and away from what we’d call Today Young Adult Fantasy. But it’s what I consider Donaldson’s masterpiece, his 2-volume Mordant’s Need — The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through, that were the game-changers for me. Donaldson brilliantly combined the conventions of the romance and Gothic novels with those of Heroic Fantasy. He presented to us a scarred, timid, and insecure heroine whose growth into a mature, strong and defiant young woman is at the heart of this fantastic “duology.” Add to the mix a rather hapless character that also grows during the story to become a true hero, some devilishly-wicked villains, the politics of empire, and a brilliant use of mirrors as tools of magic, and we have something different now, something I consider ground-breaking for its time. Up until then, there were few women who were lead characters in fantasy: the works of CL Moore, Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer-Bradley, Andre Norton, Janet Morris, CJ Cherryh, and Tanith Lee are some of the names that immediately spring to mind. For me, Donaldson showed me the way, blazing the trail that led me away from the male-centric stories I would later read and write.
By the late seventies and early eighties, the success of the del Rey formula was so confirmed that many other publishers began to publish in imitation. Dragons and unicorns began to appear all over the mass-market racks, and packaging codes with proper subliminal and overt signals developed. A whole new mass-market genre had been established. And IMHO, this was all for the good of the Heroic Fantasy genre: it needed to grow, to evolve, or it would stagnate and turn stale. In this way, “barbarian” sword-and-sorcery fiction, which has its roots in the masculine adventure of the early twentieth-century pulps, combined with the Gothic and horror elements that had become so popular in fiction magazines of the late 1920s into the Depression, was succeeded commercially — and very profitably — by novels that gave us more than just big, barbarian loners with swords, hacking and slashing their way to win or steal a treasure, to slay a wizard and steal the helpless maiden. Heroic Fantasy was growing up, and for many, I suppose, this was not a good thing. People often want to keep their artists — film makers, musicians, authors — pigeon-holed and locked away in a box, writing, recording, filming the same thing over and over again.
One of the elements that often bothered us about sword and sorcery was its frequent lack of complex or developed characters, engaging dialogue that propelled the story and brought the characters to life, and the lack of real human drama and tragedy — the kind of plotting and drama we find in all good storytellers, from Shakespeare to Dickens, and other great novelists.
Dramatis gravitas, and often a sense of humor and irony — these are what so many Barbarian Solo tales lacked. They were simple, straightforward action/adventure tales. Most of these stories, in fact, were not meant to be anything more than that, of course, and that is in the grand tradition of some of the best pulp fiction. And yet… the possibilities were and are there.
Thankfully, a new sword-and-sorcery and heroic fantasy boom have been underway for quite some years now. With a growing female audience, dedicated publishers, and an influx of daring young writers — including many gifted women who are bringing something new to the genre — the sword-and-sorcery genre is at last growing and flourishing.
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