What I do want to talk about is the opinion of Sword & Sorcery in general. Sword & Sorcery, as a genre has been sneered at over the several decades since its unintentional inception by Bob Howard. The predominant opinion among the literati (my favorite term for those that consider themselves the prime, critical connoisseurs of all that should and could be considered Literature, with the capital "L") is that Sword & Sorcery is escapist literature at its best and unhealthy, pseudo-sexual, violent fantasy re-creation at its worst. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (and this is a generalization, not a direct quote) have both in various introductions and essays I have read, called Sword & Sorcery (or Sword-play and Sorcery--a de Camp preference) a guilty pleasure meant to help the reader escape to a simpler time.
I take umbrage with the term "guilty pleasure". A long time ago, in a galaxy far-far away, I was in an Introduction to Western Literature class. My professor gave us a lecture that the kernel of which was this: if you read junk, then your mind is full of junk; therefore, you should read the good stuff, so your brain will be full of the good stuff. She then assigned us to write a short essay, completed in class, in which we were to write a few short paragraphs about our favorite guilty pleasures; after all, as she told us, while we should predominantly read "the good stuff", like an athlete on a restrictive diet, it was good to cheat once in awhile, and read some "guilty pleasure" stuff -- perhaps during our Holiday break or during the summer, so that we didn't get the urge to pig-out on the "bad stuff". Take a taste, then get back to the regiment. It will make you more deeply appreciate "the good stuff" (all her opinion, quoted from memory as best as I can).
I wrote a paragraph, not very long as I remember. My thesis was simple. If I enjoy reading something, I have no reason to feel any guilt about it. If it brings me pleasure, and no laws are broken by my doing so, then who is she, or anyone else for that matter, to tell me what the good stuff is, or the bad stuff? I don't remember her exact reaction, but I don't think that she thought I was truly embracing the spirit of the lecture/exercise.
That is an opinion I will always stand-by. It holds true for all genre literature, comic books (another often attacked pleasure of mine) and movies. But it does not answer the question: is Sword & Sorcery Literature or Junk? How is it defended? Can it be defended? It's a good question and I don't feel I can adequately answer it in one short blog post. It's a topic in need of more research. I would ask the readers of this blog to help me answer it, and perhaps I will explore it more deeply in the future, after my summer crud is gone and I've had the time to investigate it at my local university library.
My short answer is I believe Sword & Sorcery is Literature and not Junk. My defense of this is a long-term project that I am itching to begin working upon.
However, food for thought: Science Fiction is often easily defensible as Literature (with the capital L) as it often serves as a commentary upon our recent society (or the society of its time); consider Stranger in a Strange Land, or even the various robot stories of Asimov (easily viewed as the fear a culture has of an ever increasing mechanized society). Please consider giving your opinions on these statements/questions either as a comment here, or if you prefer as an email (kilsern71 at gmail dot com):
- Recent history often plays a role in the author's thought process. Consider the recent history of Howard's time. World War I ended in 1918, to what extent did that influence Howard's barbarous created world?
- Howard and Lovecraft exchanged letters over an extended time that argued the virtues of civilization versus barbarism, what are some examples of how Conan best stands for Howard's opinion that barbarism was mans natural state?
- A revival of sword and sorcery began in the 60's and 70's, the current political state of the U.S. at that time could be viewed as one in which many people believed that it was failing. How does Sword & Sorcery best exemplify this?