After Burroughs and Howard, any choice is rather arbitrary. One of the most distinctive and interesting figures in the field, however, is Fritz Leiber, a highly intelligent writer who has gained respect in a number of genera. In sword & sorcery he is thought of as the thinking man's writer, for his stories are full of wit and irony, rare commodities in the field. It is not an entirely successful mix; testosterone has no sense of irony, and irony has no respect for testosterone. Still, Leiber is inventive and keeps his stories moving, and one does have the advantage in reading them of not feeling like he has reverted to early adolescence. And there is still the violent action, the narrow escape, the scantily clad, big bosomed, and willing women, and all the rest.
JOHN NORMAN AND GOR
The Gor books are one of the most remarkable phenomena in the whole range of fantasy literature. They are not especially well written, have flat characters, and stilted dialogue. In concept they are pretty much Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" brought up to date. Mars no longer works because we know too much about it. Therefore, Norman's counter Earth is an earth-sized planet in th same orbit with earth, so that the sun is always between the two planets. Though there are mysterious, and not entirely explained humans who capture young women on earth and bring them to Gor as slaves, the hero, Tarl Cabot, arrives on Gor, then back on Earth, then back to Gor by some quasi-mystical means suggestive of how Burroughs' Characters end up on Mars. There are 25 books in the series, and would have been more had the publisher not dropped the series, raising claims of censorship. Much of the opposition to the books has come from those who have appointed themselves as defenders of womanhood, so it is ironic that it is women, the supposedly victomized group that has largely kept Gor alive on the internet, both by outnumbering men in the Gor chatrooms, and by their hundreds of websites.
This picture from some time in the '70's is obviously similar in conception to the Conan picture above. The warrior is in the center, seated in a framing chair, and there are nearly nude female figures. There are, however, very significant differences. The man is not an icon. Conan is the image of testosterone deified, and most of his readers are male. Here though the female figure draws the attention, and though we see her from behind, we also see her frontally through the eyes of the other three figures. In the first picture women are decor; here they are central.
Dominant/submissive, or sado-masochistic themes have always played a part in fantasy literature. The one thing that Gor does, is move this element to the center of the story. Norman's timing was fortunate. By the late sixties young women had begun to feel free to read, think, and feel as they chose, and the feminists had not yet nailed down their new set of "thou-shalt-not's". What many of them chose to read, think, and feel is what Mr. Norman had to offer. At times the later ones can also get just a little mean spirited; I presume that is a reflection of the growing controversy surrounding the books and the ideas expressed in them.
By the end of the '70's other writers had discovered John Norman's highly successful formula, most notably Sharon Green. Her heroines have more inner life than Norman's, and react more complexly to the situations they find themselves in, perhaps because the author, herself, has mixed feelings. She avoid's Norman's fault of sermonizing, though for male readers especially, she can be just as frustrating with her heroine's endless inner debates about her situation, her attitude toward the dominant man in her life. If the male does happen to do the right thing, it is no help because she agonizes endlessly about whether it was for the right reason. She also does not create any world as well realized as Gor. On the whole, however, her stories are lively and sexy.
Below are two covers, the first from 1982, the second from 1984. In the first the empath, Terrilian is about to be switched for one or another of her misdeeds. In the second, Diana Santee, a much more macho heroine, is running someone who is no doubt a cad, as well as on the wrong side through with a sword. The back cover of the first has the blurb, "If you like John Norman you will like Sharon Green." Not surprisingly, the author has studied both belly dancing and fencing..
BORIS AND FRAZETTA
There are many good artists working in the sword & sorcery/ fantasy field, but it has been dominated for the last thirty plus years by two figures, Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. I will not provide any pictures here, since there are several above. At one level these artists do exactly the same thing, but at another they are quite different with very different virtues and faults. Both, however, have done as much as any author to define the genera, and in many cases their vibrant art has added an undeserved luster to rather drab prose. Frazetta became well known first. After a long, and brilliant career doing the art work for such comics as Little Abner, for which he got almost no credit, he turned his hand to book covers. In the late sixties and early seventies many of the Burroughs books--Tarzan, Mars, Pellucidar were reissued. Frazetta's covers won instant recognition and were probably a major factor in the sale of the books. He quickly became the best known artist in the field.
J.R.R. Tolkein is the first writer or artist discussed here who does not derive in some way from Burroughs. Tolkein belongs to a very Victorian fantasy tradition. The Victorian age was a time of rapid modernization, and rapid advances in science. Along with a great deal of optimisim, there was also a sense of loss and dislocation. One form of escape was into fantasy literature--the fairy tales, the old hero stories, the stories of Greek or Norse gods who seemed much more approachable than any god of the vast and empty cosmos that modern science had pictured. There was also a growing sense of alienation from nature, though the sense of apartness goes much farther back, as we see in the story of Adam and Eve. We want someone to talk to, not just as individuals, but as a species, but any consciousness that may exist in the rest of nature seems not to accessible to us. We want intermediate beings, talking animals, and semi-human beings. On a more realistic level, many Victorian writers, Dickens, for instance, ends his novels with all the good people living within walking distance of each other in a sort of nuclear family.
My original intent was to discuss Gor only on this page, but it is too complex an issue, and so I have added another page. See link below:
SWORD & SORCERY:
Leiber gives us not one, but two heroes, Fafhred, a big, dangerous, but dreamy barbarian with a spiritual side, and the Gray Mouser, a small, wiry, and very lethal product of the mean streets. They not only make a lethal combination, but often give dual perspectives on what is happening.
Leiber, too, is not very respectful of gods. There are a lot of them in Leiber's world, and most of them are selfish and venal in their attitudes, and often dangerous, though nowhere nearly as malevolent as the ones in the Conan stories. Their personal gods are particularly hard to take seriously. The mouser's patron is an obscure and rather nasty spider god. Fafhred's is a rather effete martyred god known as Isac of the Jug, one of several divine Isacs. In one story the heroes, having little so show for all their adventures, decide to settle down. Fafhred becomes a disciple of the effete martyred god because he saw the god's senile, and only apostle once pat a small child on the head without knowing that anyone was watching. The Gray Mouser becomes an enforcer for a gangster who runs a temple protection racket. When the two heroes fall afoul each other, events turn truly strange.
Since Leiber's appeal is mostly to that part of the reader above the waist, his books tend to have fairly subdued covers compared to the lurid fare that is the norm for the genera.
Gor is a male dominated planet with a wide range of climates and societies, but with a number of common themes. Slavery, and especially female slavery exists everywhere, behavior is highly formal and ritualized, society is hierarchical, bloodshed to defend one's honor is everywhere recognized. The picture below gives some of the flavor of Gor.
There was much speculation about who John Norman was, and after various rumors about his nature, amusements, and occupation, it became generally known that he was a professor of philosophy at Columbia University named John Lange. It is philosophically that I have the biggest problem with the Gor books--not their morality, their logic. That, however would get more involved than this page has room for.
I will conclude, therefore, with the observation that if the Gor books are not being written, and are mostly out of print, Gor is very much alive online, with countless sites devoted to discussion, role playing, or something between. Also, many have attempted to take the Gorean lifestyle offline, including the Tuchucks, well known at SCA events.
In the Terrillian series the heroine is an empath who is assigned to a planet dominated by blond, masculine, barbarian types. She soon discovers that she is not merely helping, but was more or less given to a chieftan, and that her father was involved in the deal. In Sharon Green's world fathers are not to be trusted, and mothers should be avoided at all costs. There is a great deal of ambiguity about whether the heroine is being deprived of her rights, or whether she deserves some putting down for her general brattiness. There is none of the emotional and ethical simplicity of John Norman's world here.
In the Jalav series, the heroine is the leader of a group of female barbarians whose names all have five letters. Here too submissiveness and feminism seem to occupy the same space at the same time. The female barbarians worship a goddess, and there is a great deal of new-age sentimentality about their worship and their communications with her. It is a shock, therefore, to discover that the goddess is really an exile from a more advanced world, and that her communications with her worshippers are not actually by mystical means, but by some form of scientific brain invasion. She is also mean, treacherous, and generally bitchy. There are male barbarians as well whose rather Norse god turns out to be from the same group as the goddess. He is fairly unsavory, but nowhere nearly as bad as the goddess. Like all the writers discussed so far, Green gives religion and divinities little sympathy. Actual gods and magic, of course, only occur commonly in Howard and Leiber.
In Mind Guest the ambivalence reaches its peak. Here the very macho heroine is given the form of a very spoiled and feminine princess to carry out a mission. Unfortunately, she absorbs some of the princess' mental processes too, so that both qualities are present at once.
Frazetta is a master of action, but just as good at creating a still scene that gives the sense of explosive action about to happen. The world of tooth and claw seem very real in his work. His pictures are highly sexual, highly muscular, and very much alive. His long years doing comic strip work give him the confidence to create scenes too dangerous or strenuous to b posed with models. This is, unfortunately, also Frazetta's one weakness--his scenes, or more often part of a scene, tend to lap over into cartoon.
Boris does covers for the same sort of books, and his too are violent and sexy, but the differences are striking. Instead of Frazetta's bold, often slashing style, Boris is meticulous, especially with the human figure. He seems to love every inch of the human, and especially the female form, though no real human ever looked quite as perfect as his women. He is a master of skin color and texture. He does work from models and photographs of models, and is seldom cartoon-like. On the other hand he does few poses than can not be modelled. And sometimes his figures do appear posed, and not posed in very probable positions at that. And, though he idealizes, his women are seldom culturally transformed. There is always something a little alien about Frazetta's women; they really do seem to belong to an alien culture, and that we can never fully know them. With Boris we often imagine that as soon as the model is done with the session she will head off to the mall with her valley girl friends. At his best, though Boris can do truly breathtaking pictures.
There was a rivalry in 19th century France between two great artists, Delacroix, the romantic with his bold brush strokes and fast, slashing work, and the more classical Ingres, whose brush strokes were invisible, and who created textures that one could almost feel. There is a very similar contrast between Frazetta and Boris. I am not sure which is better, but the general vote in recent years, in terms of internet use at least, has gone to the classisist, Boris. The Gor people, especially seem enamored of his work.
It is this hunger for an intimate world that Tolkein gives us, and he presents it in a way that the Victorian age would have understood and appreciated. He leans heavily on Norse material-- he is, after all, a scholar of Germanic languages, particularly Old and Middle English. In scholarly circles he is best known for his essay, "Beowulf and the Critics," but to the general public he is known for The Hobbit, published in 1937 and theLord of the Rings trilogy completed in 1955The Hobbit received only moderate attention when it was published, but during the 1960's The Lord of the Ringsbecame a huge favorite on college campus', and then was picked up by the general public. It has remained popular ever since.
Tolkein's world is Victorian escapism in another way--it has a strong quality of the infantile. It not only has the closeness of a child's neighborhood, but it is largely pre-sexual. There are few females, and they are not well drawn. Of course none of Tolkein's characters are drawn with much depth or distinctness, except perhaps Gollum, who has no depth, but is memorable. His wizard is pure Disney. His heroes are flat. Sam, as faithful retainer, is Dickens' Sam Weller with neither the wit nor the intelligence. What Tolkein lacks in individuals, however, he makes up in societies. His social groups are collectively very vivid. It is hard to imagine that there were no Hobbits before 1937. As for his masculine, non-sexual world, maybe that's an English academic thing--after all, William Golding, in Lord of the Flies creates a microcosm of human society that has no females. Come to think of it, Lord of the . . . sounds sort of similar.
Tolkein's books are not Boris or Frazetta material, but they have been done very attractively by Michael Hague, primarily a children's illustrator, and have found their ultimate expression in the cutsie, well-scrubbed fairy world of Tim and Greg Hildebrandt, who are, undeniably, very skillful artists.
Since Tolkein's time there have been various magazines, films, and other works more or less based on his vision. In addition, there are many more books and computer games that cross his world with that of the Burroughs tradition. The most notable game is Dungeons & Dragons, which is largely the inspiration for two very large sets of fantasy books, The Dragon Lance books and the Final Fantasy books. These are mostly flat, plodding, and predictable, but they have a ready-made audience.