Thursday 16 September 2010

Context is Everything?

I came across this months ago, but I feel I should discuss it all the same.

It's basically about what the blog author, tansyrr, looks for in anthologies.  Of course, it has a few things that... perplex me.

I can’t think of much classic short fiction, in fact, that I have read without the aid of meta text in some way. I read Robert E Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in the Fantasy Masterworks editions, with essays attached. When it came to Conan in particular I know I found the essay a lot more interesting than the fiction itself… my, that stuff is hard work to get through.

Now, she was eager to point out there was nothing wrong with Leiber, but it's just Conan she had a problem with:

Nothing unreadable about Leiber, I didn’t mean to imply that there was! The Fafrd and the Grey Mouser stories were fascinating to me and I enjoyed them greatly – even coming to them, as I did, post-Pratchett.

Conan is another matter. The prose was readable enough (if on the purple side) but I found the stories incredibly dull and hard to identify with. I was reading it for the sake of historical reference but I struggled to get through the whole (first?) volume. On the whole I find reading about Conan & his creator far more interesting than the stories themselves.

I should add I think Conan is an essential read for any fantasist – it’s important to know about where we come from, and in particular to know that fantasy isn’t just what comes out of the Tolkien tradition – but after a couple of hours of jewels and pale-skinned maidens and muscle flexing and having to provide all the irony MYSELF I was dying for something a bit more… civilised.

I guess all I can do is sigh.  (Why the hell would you need irony anyway?  Does Sword-and-Sorcery have to be ironic?)

One problem, I think, is that she only read the Fantasy Masterworks collection The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle.  I loved Fantasy Masterworks - they were my gateway to Conan - but in retrospect, I do see a big problem with setting the stories in a chronological order - it leads to stretches of similar adventures happening in quick succession, which might be a bit repetitive for some.

"The Hyborian Age"
"The Tower of the Elephant"
"The Hall of the Dead" (synopsis)
"The God in the Bowl"
"Rogues in the House"
"The Hand of Nergal" (fragment)
"The Frost-Giant’s Daughter"
"Queen of the Black Coast"
"The Vale of Lost Women"
"The Snout in the Dark" (draft)
"Black Colossus"
"Shadows in the Moonlight"
"A Witch Shall Be Born"
"Shadows in Zamboula"
"The Devil in Iron"
"The People of the Black Circle"
"The Slithering Shadow"
"Drums of Tombalku" (draft)
"The Pool of the Black One"

As you can see, Volume 1 has nearly all the mediocre Conan stories - and crucially, it ends on one.  Seven excellent stories against seven mediocre stories, the very dry "The Hyborian Age," and four incomplete fragments, drafts or synopses. Virtually half of the stories in the volume are "the bad ones," and they're mostly in the second half.  This is a problematic ratio.

We start off well with "The Tower of the Elephant," "The God in the Bowl," "Rogues in the House," "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "Queen of the Black Coast."  Then we get the extremely difficult "Vale of Lost Women," followed by "Black Colossus."  But after that, we go through no less than four mediocre Conan stories before emerging to find "The People of the Black Circle," and after that, we end on another two mediocre ones.  "The Pool on the Black One" is an average Conan, but it's not a great way to end a volume.

Having "Shadows in the Moonlight," "A Witch Shall Be Born," "Shadows in Zamboula," "The Devil in Iron,"
"The Slithering Shadow," and "The Pool of the Black One" in such close proximity can give the impression that the Conan stories were getting more and more repetitive and formulaic - a very bad impression to make

In contrast, here's The Conan Chronicles: Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon:

Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborian Age"Red Nails"
"Jewels of Gwahlur"
"Beyond the Black River"
"The Black Stranger"
"Wolves Beyond the Border" (Draft)
"The Phoenix on the Sword"
"The Scarlet Citadel"
"The Hour of the Dragon" (poem)
"The Hour of the Dragon"

Barring "Jewels of Gwahlur" and the unfinished "Wolves Beyond the Border," every single one of those stories is a great Conan tale.  But even then, there are problems: having THotD follow TSC and TPotS so soon might be a bit much.  I never found it insurmountable, though, and it's certainly better than having to go through four mediocre Conan stories.  Curiously, The Conan Chronicles ends with the beginning: "Cimmeria" was written before the Conan stories, yet it is used as the end of the Conan saga here.  Interesting.

The Del Reys alleviate this problem in many ways.  There are at least four stories separating TPotS from TSC, for one thing.  Unfortunately, it also suffers the problem of having more than a few mediocre Conan stories, and it too ends on a mediocre note.  Eight excellent stories to five mediocre stories is a lot better, though.  The Bloody Crown of Conan has two excellent and one mediocre (which it ends on), while The Conquering Sword of Conan has two for three (finally ending on a high note).

Yet after all this, I think tansyrr is just too affected by the glut of modern fantasy to be able to appreciate past giants.  This post was most telling:

I worried about Joanna Russ’ The Adventures of Alyx for some time before I read it. I was expecting a Jirel of Joiry type thing, and Jirel of Joiry (the first real swordnsorcery character created by a woman) had been a crushing disappointment to me – having read about Henna the Henna-haired Harridan and watched my body weight in Xena, I found the original warrior woman by C.L. Moore quite dull and pointless, much like the original Conan the Barbarian fiction.

I guess the greatest Sword-and-Sorcery writer of them all just isn't so great any more - simply because so many people have been inspired by him and elaborated or riffed on his work. That's kind of like saying the Marx Brothers aren't funny just because so many people have aped them.  I never got that, myself.  I've never had the problem of being "spoiled" by later authors: in fact, most of my favourite fantasy authors are the old classics.  But then, I didn't read a lot of the generic fantasy that glutted the shelves of Borders and Waterstones, so perhaps I'm not as bombarded with Conan clones and xerox Jirels to have their magic ruined for me.

Seriously, how can you call the first Sword-and-Sorcery heroine dull and pointless... when she was the first.  Even having read a lot of Sword-and-Sorcery heroines, there's something to Jirel that's utterly different from modern heroines: perhaps it's Moore's touch, perhaps it's the sense of breaking boundaries even within the prose, but even discounting the fact that she's the first, there's a lot to her that I haven't encountered in any other fantasy heroines.  It's difficult to define, I guess, perhaps food for another post... but to be crushingly disappointed?

Poor tansyrr.  But then, I guess she's right in one thing: context is everything.


  1. I haven't read any Jirel but it sounds to me the same as what I've encountered with Conan:

    There are imitators and there are equals, but among the imitators there are no equals.

  2. Wise words, Butcherhammer. Pretty much my thinking too.

  3. This reminds me of discussions I've seen on Citizen Kane. "What's so great about it?", "It's boring!", not realizing that what Welles did in that movie was basically invent the "language" of modern cinema which everyone has been using ever since, which is why, since people have seen that language used all their life, they can't see what's special about Kane or understand that Welles was a genius.

  4. I think I've had those exact discussions, Blackstorme. It's crazy.

  5. I think the comment about irony says a lot about how a lot of people read fantasy nowadays; if it's not "self-aware" enough, it's old-fashioned and unreadable (i.e. serious). That's also why a lot of people would rather watch Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings than read Tolkien's.

  6. I've had the same discussion with people who prefer Raymond Feist to Tolkien because "Feist is more exciting and faster moving and Tolkien didn't know how to write modern fiction, etc etc." If you tell them that without Tolkien they wouldn't be reading Feist of Brooks or Salvatore or Jordan or Goodkind they look at you like you just stepped off a UFO.
    But yeah, context and a knowledge of older literary forms is vital to being well read. If you can't appreciate something simply because it isn't written like the latest James Patterson opus, you aren't going to get far. When I read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Sir Walter Scott or Conan Doyle, I don't expect their work to be written like a book from today. I don't expect that either from Lester Dent, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, or any of the other giants from the pulp era.
    And seriously, C.L. Moore wrote some of the most darkly lush prose I can think of, full of images that were almost fever dreams and hallucinations. Wild magic and fierce emotions burn in the Jirel stories. (And in the tales Northwest Smith) All it takes is a little awareness of the literary styles of the time in which Moore wrote to carry you through to the power behind the words. Anyone interested in the history of fantasy has to dig deeper than surface flash. If you want to read William Morris and Lord Dunsany, you're going to have to bring the same love of the wide variety of literature that you bring to reading Spenser and Chaucer and Mark Twain. Don't discount something just because it initially takes a little effort to get past your MTV sensibilities. I'll hop off the soap box now.

  7. very interesting this comment by Charles R Rutledge, his comment and blackstorme's about Citizen Kane reminds me that young people who don't see films older than the year they were born...
    by the way, A witch shall be born a mediocre Conan story??? and I like stories in the Pool of the black one style with young girls scantly clad in danger too... for me the mediocre stories, but correct, are The god in the bowl and Rogues in the house, for me the stories of Conan as a thief are more or less boring...

  8. On "mediocre" Conan stories: that phrase can be misleading, since even the mediocre Conans can be excellent and fun pieces of writing: they just aren't Howard at his very best. I prefer it over saying the "bad" Conan stories, or the "worst" Conan stories, since that gives the impression of a distinct lack of quality. Just because I think, say, "A Witch Shall Be Born" would be considered a mediocre Conan story doesn't mean I don't really enjoy it, especially considering it has some of the most iconic Conan moments in it. Same with "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," my least favourite Conan story, which has a few really excellent moments too.

    Thus, Conan stories, to me, are divided into the "Some awesome moments" and "wall-to-wall awesome."

    It's undoubtedly up to interpretation as to which stories are mediocre and which aren't: Heroes in the Wind includes "A Witch Shall Be Born" as one of the four Conan stories, for instance. Some people love TGitB and RitH, some people don't (like yourself).

    However, I definitely think there are some stories that are simply not comparable to the very best Conan stories. More importantly is that there are certain stories with very similar plots which are near side-by-side, like the "Green-Stone City" stories, and that could wear people out.

    I'll have to address this in a future post.

  9. but that stories with green-stone city are maybe the more pulp oriented of all, others like Beyond the black river or Red nails trascend the pulp fiction...

  10. Exactly! The Green-stone cities are complete, wonderful pulp, and I love them for it: however, the stories that transcend pulp are the things that make Howard timeless.

  11. Such a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing. Keep posting. I follow you.
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