Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta, from FrankFrazetta.net

He’s elemental. He’s ugly. His body is scarred, nicked, battered, and beaten. His face is a face that’s been punched many times; but it’s the face of a man who comes back every time. His limbs are taut-muscled and gnarly-veined like twisted tree roots; his skin has a green sheen like verdigrised copper. Barbarous, piratical, adventurous, dark-eyed, deadly and dignified, the epitome of contained power in glorious, brooding, post-melee repose, Frank Frazetta’s ‘The Barbarian’ — painted in 1965, and used as the cover for the first of Lancer Books’ Conan paperbacks — is, to me, the essence of the sword and sorcery hero.

He is, of course, surrounded by death — the ghostly skulls hanging like a desert mirage in the flaming sky behind him, and the gloopy mass of blood, bones, and corpse-parts he’s standing on — but he’s triumphant. Unlike the rather stiffly-posed Conans that came before, with their neatly cut hair, their sandals and freshly-pressed tunics, here Frazetta brings mess and dirt to fantasy painting. More than a decade before George Lucas’s idea of a ‘used future’ made Star Wars so convincing, this Conan has been through the wars.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

There’s a woman clinging to his leg — the sex to compliment the icky-sticky death, because this is a male fantasy — but I don’t think she’s submissive. She’s holding onto his leg with what seems to me (I may be wrong — there is a chain in the background) to be genuine affection, as if to say, ‘This man’s mine. Clear off.’ And I think she can back that threat up. I’m pretty sure that’s her axe sticking out of the ground behind her.

‘The Barbarian’ is a Symbolist work of art, as the decadent Symbolists (much as I love them) could never have painted it. It’s simply too vital. Just compare it with a similar (though late-Symbolist period) work, Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s ‘She’ (from 1905). Mossa’s ‘She’ is that Symbolist nightmare, the femme fatale, here presiding over a mound of dead bodies; pale and languid-eyed, crows and skulls are in her hair (and a pistol, among other weapons, hangs from her necklace) because she, unlike Frazetta’s barbarous pair, is on the side of death. Frazetta’s barbarian, and his recumbent barbarienne, are on the side of life. But, it should be noted, their life, not yours. This pair is no abstract celebration of vitality. If you get too close, you may end up as one more decoration on their mound of corpses.

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta, from FrankFrazetta.net

‘Egyptian Queen’, painted for the cover of Eerie issue 23 in 1968 (though Frazetta modified the face soon afterwards), is perhaps the archetypal Frazettan female. Sultry and kitten-faced, she exudes the same elemental power and dignity as ‘The Barbarian’, only with a shade more (though a very gloomy shade, it has to be said) civility. Her pedestal isn’t a mound of corpses, it’s an actual pedestal (though the chipped stone edge implies battles have been fought in this chamber), and she stands between her snarling pet leopard, and her scimitar-wielding bodyguard, with regal calm. Even that marble pillar presents its flame-like lustre as an aspect of her smouldering vitality. Again, it’s a painting that encapsulates power, perhaps recently-exercised, now in brief repose; and though it may, in this case, be political rather than physical power, it very much resides in the physical figure of the queen herself — not in statutes of law or machineries of state, but in sheer, living vitality. She perhaps owes something to Hollywood — her headgear and leopard could have come from 1934’s Cleopatra — but she has none of that film-star frivolity & foot-stamping pettishness about her. This is a woman who really could rule an empire (albeit a crumbling one — but they’re the best ones to rule).

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Frazetta_TigerFrazetta’s greatest artistic quality is, I think, the combination of vitality and dignity he gives his figures. (And I don’t just mean his human figures, but his apes and lions and lizards, too.) His battles are always battles between equals. They’re not contests of physical prowess, they’re contests of dynamism and heroism, of sheer vitality. The un-armoured woman with only a dagger in her hand is clearly the equal, in Frazetta’s world, of that flame-eyed tiger, or that pack of wolves, or that flock of pterodactyls, because she has just as fierce a will to live. The conflict isn’t really conflict, it’s a pairing, a flashing moment of dynamic tension between equals.

It’s true, not all his paintings present women as heroically as they do the men, but in the best of them it’s vitality itself that’s the subject, heroically embodied, whether in the human body, male or female, or in troglodytes, gorillas, crocodiles or panthers. It even seethes out of the twisting roots of jungle trees, and the roiling waves of storm-tossed oceans. It’s that sense of elemental vitality I like to find in the best sword and sorcery: the feeling that the life-force (an old-fashioned term, but surely worth a non-scientific resurrection) is at its most potent when faced with death and darkness, surrounded by wildness and fierceness, and couched in the nobility of the individual, however rough and haggard, or svelte and beautiful. Frazetta’s work is, above all, exciting, living, and elemental — the essence of sword and sorcery.

The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ

Russ's The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

I bought Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx a while ago because I read somewhere of it having affiliations with Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories. For a long while it sat on my ever-lengthening to-read shelf, because whenever I picked it up for a shall-I-read-it skim, it seemed more SF than sword & sorcery. So I did some Wikipedia research — it turns out Alyx the Pick-lock is referred to in “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” and “Under the Thumbs of the Gods” — then started reading.

The first Alyx tale, “Bluestocking”, has several Leiberish resonances: a Lankhmar-like city called Ourdh, whose name recalls Leiber’s Ourph the Mingol (later stories make it clear the setting is Earth at the time of ancient Greece); most of the story has its two main characters adrift on the ocean in a small boat, reminiscent of Leiber’s “Their Mistress, the Sea” (though that story was first published in 1968; “Bluestocking” appeared in 1967); and at one point Alyx mentions having known a “big Northman with… a big red beard — God, what a beard! — Fafnir — no, Fafh — well, something ridiculous.” “Bluestocking” begins with pickpocket Alyx being hired by a slightly spoiled rich girl, Edarra, to help her flee an impending marriage. During their time together, Edarra loses her more refined, delicate edges, and Alyx gets to kill a sea-serpent and a trio of pirates. In the following story, “I Thought She Was Afeared Until She Stroked My Beard”, jumping back in the character’s timeline, Alyx leaves her abusive husband and pairs herself with a far less chauvinistic pirate — though she still has to teach him a lesson or two in true equality, when she matches his body-count in a bloody fight.

Joanna RussAs in so many sword & sorcery tales, what these initial stories are about is defining a hero. And here, unlike the usual S&S strategy of defining a hero by what he or she fights, Alyx is more often portrayed in contrast to a companion — the spoilt Edarra in “Bluestocking”, the well-meaning but still slightly prejudiced Blackbeard in “I Through She Was Afeared…” In these first two stories, I felt that was pretty much all that was happening — they were far more about defining Alyx as a character than telling a story with her, though this defining is nevertheless an important step when a writer is trying to do something new. As Russ says in her biographical note at the start of the Women’s Press collected edition: “I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.” (This was the late 1960s. As Aldiss & Wingrove say in Trillion Year Spree: “Russ’s Alyx stories were something quite new to the genre. Alyx is a female rebel. A thief and adventuress. A highly competent and aggressive woman. She was a revolutionary fictional character, challenging the competent male/wilting female syndrome that had dominated the magazine genre for forty years.”)

The first tale that really worked for me is the third, and the most sword and sorcery-like of the lot, “The Barbarian”. Here, Alyx is hired (as so many S&S heroes have been down the ages) by a sorcerer in need of a bit of thievish skill and swordly brawn. This story has some of the best writing in the series, for instance when Alyx leads her sorcerous employer through the benighted rooms of a building they’ve broken into:

“Her fingers brushed lightly alongside her, like a creeping animal: stone, stone, a gap, warm air rising… In the dark she felt wolfish, her lips skinned back over her teeth; like another species she made her way with hands and ears. Through them the villa sighed and rustled in its sleep. She put the tips of the fingers of her free hand on the back of the fat man’s neck, guiding with the faintest of touches through the turns of the corridor…”

The ending shades into science fiction, but in the well-established manner of the Unknown school — with a primitive protagonist encountering advanced technology and defeating it through uneducated but nevertheless scientific thinking. I’m not really sure if that’s cheating or not, but it works, as a story, and the goodie wins, which is the main point…

Picnic on ParadiseThe next tale, “Picnic on Paradise” marks a break in two ways: it’s much longer than the previous stories (it was initially published as a separate novel, in 1968); and in it, Alyx has been whisked into the future by the Trans-Temporal Military Authority to guide some tourists across hazardous alien terrain to the safety of a base where they can be taken off-world. Things go wrong, of course, but not before Alyx’s relationships with the leisure-softened, over-psychoanalysed tourists doped up on “stimulants and euphorics” have been stretched past their plastic limit. This short novel is, really, an expansion of that initial story where Alyx was stuck in a wilderness (the ocean) with a pampered rich girl, whom she brought into more vibrant contact with the feeling of being alive. It’s a sort of science-fictional version of Crocodile Dundee (not at all meant as an insult — Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala would be a similar comparison). Like the best sword & sorcery, the Crocodile Dundee type of story is about getting back in touch with far more real, far more meaningful and basic values through a bit of down-and-dirty, barbaric common sense. But here, the picture isn’t as clear cut as in Crocodile Dundee, as, ultimately, Alyx gets as affected by her contact with these over-civilised future civilians as they do by her. But we do get, at last, her heroic credo:

“…nobody ever let me do anything in my life before and I never let that stop me.”

Alyx doesn’t appear in the final story in the collection, “The Second Inquisition”, which seems to have been included here only because it mentions the Trans-Temporal Military Authority, unless I’m missing something. Set in 1920s Earth, where the narrator’s family are, for some reason, putting up a visitor from the future, it reads very much like Gene Wolfe at his most oblique — peppered with a stream of apparently inconsequential little details which made me feel that, if I only I knew which detail was significant and why, the whole thing would become clear, but as I know neither which nor why, I wasn’t entirely sure it was worth the effort to read it again to find out.

The_Adventures_of_AlyxI found my level, Alyx-wise, with “The Barbarian”. It’s the most sword & sorcery-like tale, though made all the more refreshing by its emancipated protagonist. Alyx constantly gibes and annoys her employer, never taking him as seriously as he thinks he ought to be taken, questioning his orders and being disobedient, then puncturing his technological/magical superiority with a bit of very non-technological/non-magical violence. Like all sword & sorcery heroes should.

Alyx, as a character, was a sort of experiment on Russ’s part, and once she’d proved herself in the old-style arena of sword and sorcery, there was nothing for it but to move onto far more of-the-times science fiction in “Picnic on Paradise” — only for her to be left out of the picture altogether by the time of “The Second Inquisition”. I’d have loved to have read more stories in the style, and the world, of “The Barbarian”, but I think that, in writing it, Russ had made her point and it was time to move on.

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore

Catherine Lucille Moore wrote six tales featuring her sorcery-fighting swordsmistress Jirel of Joiry, published in Weird Tales between October 1934 (“Black God’s Kiss”) and April 1939 (“Hellsgarde”). The second, “Black God’s Shadow”, appeared in the December 1934 issue alongside Robert E Howard’s “A Witch Shall Be Born”, the story in which a crucified Conan bites back at a vulture.

Weird Tales, October 1934

Margaret Brundage cover to Weird Tales, showing Jirel of Joiry and the Black God

Impetuous, fearless and undaunted by danger, Jirel shares many characteristics with her sword and sorcery stablemate, but her stories are nothing like Conan’s. In each adventure, having been set up as a dynamic “female warrior queen and spitfire of the fifteenth century” (as Sam Moskowitz puts it), Jirel is usually plunged straight into the sort of situation where her physical prowess and combat skills count for nothing. The classic Jirel of Joiry tale, after a brief and deftly sketched actionful introduction, has her being transported to another realm, usually a highly surreal one, where magic and dream-logic replace the straightforward adventure-style jinx you expect from sword & sorcery. This makes Jirel something of a puzzle. Whereas Conan cuts through the pretensions (and the major arteries) of sorcerers, priests and eldritch things with brute force and barbaric common sense, the situations Jirel finds herself in can usually only be solved by fighting fire with fire — by finding some ally, or some weapon, as magically powerful and dangerous as the opponent she’s facing. This means her adventures can feel somewhat arbitrary, bookended as they are by magics that both get her into a fix and out of it. But it’s between these points Jirel’s real heroism comes to the fore, and it’s heroism of a strange sort, though one she shares with most 20th century pulp-style heroes from Conan to James Bond. Although, when you think of, say, Conan or Bond as heroes, you think of their way with a sword, a gun, or a fist, or their general ability at taking down a villain, the point at which these pulpsters really prove their heroism is usually a moment in which they’re being helplessly tortured or tormented — think of Conan nailed to that cross in “A Witch Shall Be Born”, or Bond making his way through Dr No’s torturous and tortuous obstacle course on his way to a date with a giant squid (or the line everyone remembers from Goldfinger: “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!”). Moore seems to have refined this moment to make it the centrepiece — almost the entire tale, in fact — of her Jirel stories. As Moorcock & Cawthorn put it in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books:

“C. L. Moore excels in the evocation of a pervasive, miasmic atmosphere of evil. This is achieved to a great degree by her descriptions of the distress and degradation evinced by its victims…”

Jirel of Joiry“Black God’s Kiss” starts breathlessly, with Jirel of Joiry already captured and being brought before her gloating conqueror Guillaume, who has just seized control of Castle Joiry. Delighted to find Joiry’s commander is a woman, he forces a kiss, then has her sent to a dungeon. Jirel, fired up with the need for revenge, travels to another dimension to find a means of getting her own back. Fortunately, Castle Joiry has a House on the Borderland-style trapdoor in its lowest cellar, a strange corkscrew helter-skelter passage to a black-lit world of nightmare visions. The bulk of the story is Jirel’s combined horror and awe as she crosses this land in search of a weapon to revenge herself on Guillaume. She witnesses a stream of weird and frightening sights, but at no point is she required to do anything but witness them:

“Half-way across, she saw one of the white blotches approaching her with slow, erratic movements. It bumped along unevenly, and at first she thought it might be inanimate, its approach was so indirect and purposeless. Then it blundered nearer, with that queer bumpy gait, making sucking noises in the ooze and splashing as it came. In the starlight she saw suddenly what it was, and for an instant her heart paused and sickness rose overwhelmingly in her throat. It was a woman — a beautiful woman whose white bare body had the curves and loveliness of some marble statue. She was crouching like a frog, and as Jirel watched in stupefaction she straightened her legs abruptly and leaped as a frog leaps, only more clumsily, falling forward into the ooze a little distance beyond the watching woman. She did not seem to see Jirel. The mud-spattered face was blank. She blundered on through the mud in awkward leaps…”

This realm Jirel has slipped into seems rather Freudian — that degraded woman hopping frog-like through a swamp could be an image of Jirel’s shame at Guillaume’s treatment, but also a sort of reversed fairy tale transformation, with the dark anti-prince kissing our human heroine and turning her into a frog.

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel travels to the centre of this weird realm, and finds a one-eyed statue of the Black God. Kissing it (as she feels compelled to do), she feels “something cold and stunning; something alien beyond any words” enter her. Returning to her own world, she repays her degradation by passing Guillaume the “dreadful, cold bleakness” of the Black God’s kiss — and then, in a very un-Conan-like twist, realises too late that beneath the humiliation and anger she felt attracted to this powerful man. The second tale, “Black God’s Shadow”, sees her trying to right this wrong, and returning to that weirdly black-lit world to free the dead Guillaume.

My main reaction to the Jirel stories is to find them, on the one hand, genuinely weird and wildly imaginative, and on the other, turgid with so many internalised battles with fiercely-felt but abstract emotional tussles, that they were a combination of fantastic thrills and solid drudgery to read. It’s perhaps unfair to quote a sample passage out of context, but this is the sort of thing I mean, when Jirel finds the statue of the Black God:

“Gradually the universal focusing of lines began to exert its influence upon her. She took a hesitant step forward without realising the motion. But that step was all the dormant urge within her needed. With her one motion forward the compulsion closed down upon her with whirlwind impetuosity. Helplessly she felt herself advancing, helplessly with one small, sane portion of her mind she realised the madness that was gripping her, the blind, irresistible urge to do what every visible line in the temple’s construction was made to compel…”

The passion behind even these abstract passages is undoubtable, but it can also feel so much like wading through mud, at times, having to read through so much deeply felt but abstract prose. Sam Moskowitz puts it best, I think, in his chapter on Moore in Seekers of Tomorrow:

“The climax of each story found Northwest Smith [Moore’s other series hero] or Jirel of Joiry in the formless haze of spiritual battle with the unknown. The plot situations were rarely solved by a logical sequence of events, but instead by a burst of rhetorical hypnotism.”

A young C L Moore, from the Teller of Weird Tales blog

A young C L Moore, from the Tellers of Weird Tales blog

Jirel’s adventures feel shamanic. She passes from this world to another, to face some magical evil in a world where none of the logic of this one applies — and so none of the usual action-story resolutions can be applied, either. Perhaps it’s wrong-footing to think of them as sword & sorcery because, although the Jirel of Joiry tales do include swords and sorcery, the swords and the sorcery almost never meet. In fact, the thing the Jirel stories remind me of most are fever dreams — something I thought of only when I read that, when she was young, Moore suffered from ill-health and had to spend a lot of time bed-bound, which is where she developed her love of imaginative stories.

It’s the flashes of (often horrific) imagination for which I’ll remember these tales — as at the beginning of perhaps the best of them, “Hellsgarde”, where Jirel approaches a mist-shrouded castle, expecting it to be abandoned, and finds herself confronted with a small troop of motionless soldiers. Then she realises: the guards are dead, propped into a standing position by having their own spears driven through their throats. She rides gently between them, then:

“Was that motion among the ghastly guard? Her heart leaped to her throat and she gripped the saddle between nervous knees with a sudden reflex action that made the horse shudder. For one of the men in the row before her was slipping silently toward the flagstones. Had the spear-butt slid on the bloody tiles? Had a breeze dislodged his precarious balance? There was no breeze. But with a curious little sigh from collapsing lungs he folded gently downward to his knees, to his side, to a flattened proneness on the stones. And a dark stream of blood trickled from his mouth to snake across the pavement as he lay there… Only in a nightmare could such things happen.”

Only in a nightmare, or in the stories of C L Moore.

The Earliest English Poems, translated & edited by Michael Alexander

The Earliest English Poems, Michael AlexanderThere’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile, when spear-wielding enemies arrived by the seasonal boat-load demanding ransom or death, when every venture forth from home was to risk not coming back, and when every day was rounded by off by darkness laying siege to the little island of light and warmth that was the mead-hall, in which people gathered together to eat, drink, give gifts (gold rings and swords with heroic pedigrees), and listen to stories chanted in a primitive but vital meter. The values of these thousand-year-old societies were simple but profound: loyalty to one’s lord (and, crucially, his to you), kinship, companionship, bravery in battle, and reverence for “Wierd” (as Michael Alexander chooses to spell it, to separate the word from its current usage): that essence of Dark Ages fatalism, a pagan dourness lingering amidst the new hope of Christianity, encompassing both the way things work in the world, and the doom all men inevitably move towards:

“either illness or age or the edge of vengeance
shall draw out the breath from the doom-shadowed.”

These Beowulf-era poems are perhaps most well-known for their use of kennings, poetic prevarications like “welkin-wanderer” for “moon” and “whale’s riding” for “sea” — standard devices used by oral poets to fill out the meter as they think up the next line. But there’s a vitality in their use of language — even in translation — that brings out the sheer facts of living and dying in that era: “grave’s grasp” is death, an old man is “winter-wearied” and “heavy with friend-loss”, battle is “hard wood-talk” and “shield’s answer to shaft”.

Indeed, this thumping, thudding, drum-beat alliteration is particularly good for describing battles. For instance this, from “The Battle of Maldon”, the longest poem in the book, which Michael Alexander calls “without doubt the finest battle-poem in English” (inevitably, it’s one of defeat):

“Then was a splintering of shields, the sea-wolves coming on
in war-whetted anger. Again the spears
burst breast-lock, breached life-wall
of Wierd-singled men.”

The battle-poems are tales of men together. The poems of men and women as individuals are inevitably ones of exile and separation. Of all the poems in this book, it’s “The Wanderer” I re-read the most. It begins:

“Who liveth alone longeth for mercy,
Maker’s mercy. Though he must traverse
tracts of sea, sick at heart
—trouble with oars ice-cold waters,
the ways of exile — Wierd is set fast.”

Another such exile appears in “The Seafarer”:

“No man blessed
with a happy land-life is like to guess
how I, aching-hearted, on ice-cold seas
have wasted whole winters…”

The kennings I mentioned above are usually seen as circumlocutions for things like the sea (“swan’s riding”), or a ship (“sea-steed”), but the Seafarer talks of “breast-drought I have borne, and bitternesses too” — and that “breast-drought” is a kenning, but one that can’t be replaced by any single modern English word, yet still manages to go straight to a still-living meaning, and make it vividly alive.

Although there is Christian belief in these poems (one of the longer ones is “The Dream of the Rood”, a monologue spoken by the cross on which Christ was crucified), the main mood is a dark one of the inevitability of death, separation, and ruin:

“A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be
when all this world’s wealth standeth waste,
even as now, in many places, over the earth
walls stand, wind-beaten,
hung with hoar-frost: ruined habitations.”

But in the face of this there’s a defiance, a decision to hold fast to the code by which the people of that time lived, and to burn all the brighter for the briefness of their flame:

“Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
mood the more, as our might lessens.”

(Which Michael Alexander calls “the classic declaration of the heroic faith”.) This is the essence of what I like in the best sword & sorcery fiction, and here it is, straight from the source.

Fittingly, most of the poems translated here are fragments, ruins, victims of the ravening “Wierd” of history itself. But still the heroic voices come through — the old wanderer bereft of lord and hearth, the woman separated from her lover because of a feud (“If he comes to the camp they will kill him for sure”), the exiled poet eking out comfort from a sad refrain (“That went by; this may too”), the brave few battling to the end through loyalty to their dead lord.

What it says in “The Wanderer” could apply to them all:

“Their Wierd is glorious.”