Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Heroic Fantasy: An Overview

L. Sprague De Camp characterizes heroic fantasy as a genre where “men are mighty, women are beautiful, problems are simple, and life is adventurous” (De Camp 9). Lin Carter, a colleague of DeCamp’s explains the aficianados’ appellation to the genre as “Sword and Sorcery”, that school of fantastic fiction wherein the heroes are pretty much heroic, the villains thoroughly villainous, and action of the derring-do variety takes the place of sober social commentary or serious psychological introspection” (Carter xi).

Another difference between high fantasy and heroic fantasy is that it does not necessarily have to take place in an entirely magical otherworld; much of the genre is based in a pre, pseudo, or counterfactual historical setting, “in our world, on another planet, or in parallel universes” (Fredericks 99), depicting “full-scale re-creation of battles or military campaigns in some alternate or “legendary” context” (Slusser & Rabkin 2) and in this way. These contexts are largely medieval in a romantically primitive sense; “medievalism as a literary construction does not always mean medieval in the sense of a fixed period in Western history…the liberal use of magic and the existence of fabulous creatures like dragons are the most obvious examples of this” (DiTomasso 152). The writer of heroic fantasy is more concerned with how the setting allows for the heroic elements than for the harsh realities of the historical medieval period:

“In such a world, gleaming city raise their shining spires against the stars, sorcerers cast sinister spells from subterranean thickets; and the fate of kingdoms is balanced on the the bloody blades of broadswords brandished by heroes of preternatural might and valor” (DeCamp in Worley 162).

It is this romantic-medievalist construction to which the storytellers of heroic fantasy must be true, since it “frequently forms the necessary and logical setting for much of fantastic literature” (DiTommaso 152). To deviate from this constructed world creates anachronistic moments in the text, written or visual. Some might cite the use of modern music in 300 as anachronistic, but it only is if it's purely historical. The presence of the symphonic metal soundtrack again connects the film to this genre, since a number of heroic fantasy artworks by Frank Frazetta were used by 70's metal bands, and many current metal groups align their artwork and sometimes lyrical content with the genre.

The genre is “inexorably linked to warfare” (Slusser & Rabkin 2), and as such characteristically more violent than high fantasy, not only because of the sword's semantic presence in “Sword and Sorcery”, but due to the epic model heroic fantasy is the modern descendant of:

“This heroic school of fantasy dates, of course, from remote antiquity and boasts an illustrious lineage. The prototypes of swordly-sorcerous swashbuckling can be clearly traced back to the voyagings of Odysseus, the adventures of Jason, the labors of Hercules, the wanderings of Aeneas, the explorations of Sinbad, the exploits of Beowulf, Siegfried, and St. George, and the chivalric questings of Amadis and Orlando, of Lancelot and Galahad” (Carter xi).

Each era of heroic epic and legend is concerned largely with physical struggle. As J.B. Hainsworth notes in his article on Ancient Greek traditions of heroic and epic Greek poetry, “The staple was martial exploits” (25). For an army, the greatest exploit was to assault and overwhelm an enemy’s fortifications; for the individual hero, “it was to slay a worthy opponent in single combat” (25). Kingly valor and physical prowess in armed combat were considered cornerstones in the Germanic heroic literature of both Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied (Canitz 100), set as they are during “the age of conquest” (118).

This physical struggle is key to the heroic fantasy; unlike epic fantasy, where personal courage is the heroes greatest asset, “heroic fantasy glorifies the physical” (Worley 171). In most heroic fantasy, this brawn is pitted against the brains of a physically inferior villain whose minions (variably magical beasts or thugs as stupid but not quite as brawny as the hero), a characteristic that makes the works appealing to children since the formula of brawn triumphing over brains “dispels feelings of displacement in a world of adult complexity by relating to the empowerment figure…who overcomes with fist or sword what he cannot overcome with his mind” (167-68). While critics of the genre have argued this makes heroic fantasy childish (168) and even Fritz Leiber, defender and writer of the genre admits that ““…there is an undeniably boyish element in all swordplay and sorcery fiction, even the most sophisticated or wickedly decadent” (4), we must be careful at this juncture to not dismiss the genre as useless:

“One cannot dismiss entire genres so casually, as critics originally did with the hard boiled school and as they now do with Sword-and-Sorcery…Essentially, these critics like elves but do not like barbarians. They applaud the notion of a character such as Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings overcoming great hardships to regain the crown of kingship that is his right by heritage, but they damn the Howardian barbarian such as Conan…for deposing corrupt monarchs and tearing the crown from their heads with their own blood-covered hands” (Knight 129).

The English Journal, rather than dismissing the genre has investigated it as “a metaphor for the human condition—ripe with mythic structures, heroic cycles , and social and religious commentary” (Thomas 60) while Katherine Bucher and Lee Manning applaud heroic fantasy for providing “adolescents with a feeling of overcoming the odds and being triumphant at a time when their own lives are often a series of “battles” that they lose or never even get to fight” (Bucher and Manning 136). And we cannot assume that only adolescent males feel a sense of powerlessness; however misguided the North American men’s movement may be, there is a clear indication of identity confusion and a sense of hunger, loneliness and unhappiness in many North American males (Torgovnick 167).

Heroic fantasy offers an escape into a world where life is written in large, bold strokes. While the real world is complex and dynamic, the world of heroic fantasy is simple and fixed:

“Loyalty, faith, identity are abstract schemas and have their own sense of reality, but in medieval movies we do not experience them in the abstract. They are, after all, real to the hero, in ways that cost him or her enormous pain. But our need to see the hero torn between loyalties, faiths, identities does not arise from sadism but from a need to be torn ourselves, transfixed inescapably by the necessity of doing what we must, believing as we do, being who we are. Medieval films, like most stories, are fables of identity but they are set in a harder world than ours where the demands of loyalty and faith are absolute.” (Woods 49).

Michael Rosenthal has suggested that the construction of identity in the postmodern context is achieved through the accumulation of multiple narratives (91). Postmodern narratives are primarily visual, and so the stories of film become building blocks for identity construction. Blackmore speculates that in 300, Frank Miller (and we can include by association Zakk Snyder once again) “is not so much recounting the story even according to the untrustworthy Herodotus as much as creating a model for heroism” (Blackmore 342) with Leonidas’s sacrifice as “a model of human selflessness and heroism to what he feels is a smug, self-congratulatory, selfish, twenty-first century America” (Blackmore 329). In the next post, we'll turn to an examination of 300 as heroic fantasy.

Works Cited

300. Dir. Zakk Snyder. Warner Brothers, 2006.

Blackmore, Tim. “300 and Two: Frank Miller and Daniel Ford Interpret Herodotus’ Thermopylae Myth” International Journal of Comic Art. 6. (2004): 325-349.

Bucher, Katherine T., and Manning, M. Lee. “A Boy’s Alternative to Bodice-Rippers” The English Journal. 89. (2000): 135-138.

Canitz, A. E. C., “Kingship in Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied” Mankind Quarterly 27. (1986): 97-119.

Carter, Lin: Introduction: Neomythology. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1976. xi-xxix.

DeCamp, L. Sprague. Introduction. Conan of Cimmeria by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter. Bantam Books, 1969. 9-12.

DiTommaso, Lorenzo. “Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Tales and the Question of Race in Fantastic Literature” Extrapolation. 37. 1996: 151-170.

Herron, Don, Ed. The Dark Barbarian: The Writings of Robert E. Howard: A Critical Anthology. Gilette: Wildside Press, 1984.

Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Knight, George. “Robert E. Howard: Hard-boiled Heroic Fantasist” Herron 117-134.

Lieber, Fritz. “Howard’s Fantasy” Herron 3-15.

Rosenthal, Michael, “What was Postmodernism?” Socialist Review, 22. (1992): 83-105.

Slusser, George and Rabkin, Eric S. Eds. Fights of Fancy: Armed Conflict in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Worley, Alec. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Melies to The Lord of the Rings Jefferson: McFarlan & Company, Inc., 2005.

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