Sunday, July 3, 2011

Give Me Some of That Old Time Sword and Sorcery

The summer's schedule has been out of control busy so far, and its been difficult to come up with much to post because of the lack of time for gaming activities.  Getting my Ancient league games in has been a struggle, and for the first time in quite a few years, I'm not getting to Historicon.  Even my opportunities for getting units painted up have been greatly diminished.  The one thing that I have been able to keep up with though has been my reading, and as far as that goes, I've gotten away from my usual reading material of Ancient History books and historical novels with a nostalgic sweep back into the Sword and Sorcery stories of my youth.



Once I saw the latest trailers for the upcoming Conan movie, that got me started on a return to the classics of the genre.  First, I rummaged through my attic and dug out some of my old Lancer edition Conan books edited by L. Spraque De Camp – you know, the ones that included this iconic fantasy cover by Frank Frazetta:



What I hadn't realized is that the Robert E. Howard stories in these volumes were actually edited by De Camp, and were not in the form the author had originally intended.  Also, a significant number of pastiches were included, of varying quality by De Camp, Lin Carter, and several other authors.  What this realization did is send me to the relatively recently published Del Rey volumes.  These three books (“The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian”, “The Bloody Crown of Conan”, and “The Conquering Sword of Conan”) are simply fantastic.  Inside them are contained everything that Howard ever wrote about the Hyborian Age, in their original form, and in the order the stories were actually written.  I was concerned when starting that my teenage memories of these tales were rosy tinted, but going back to them as someone who has now passed his middle-aged years, I have found that not only do the best stories hold up in comparison to the more modern fantasy literature, but a more mature reading has found added depth and thrills galore.  The pacing is always crisply breathtaking, the narrative is savage and brutal, but the rapid fire characterizations and cultural descriptions are much more finely fashioned than what I had recollected.  Besides the stories themselves, the volumes are richly illustrated and also include introductions, essays, drafts, synopses, and correspondences.  Considering that some of these stories are seeing print for the first time in the form intended by the author, the Del Rey Conan collection is a must have for any fantasy fan.  Very highly recommended.

Having latched onto the Del Rey collection, that also got me looking for some more Conan literary material, and I remembered Roy Thomas' comic version of Conan from the 1970's - “The Savage Sword of Conan”.  Well, it turns out that since 2003, Dark Horse Comics has revived the Conan comic franchise.  I haven't seen any of their monthly books, but I have picked up some of their collections published in a graphic novel format.  These are great!  Each book has a storyline wrapped around an original Howard tale, with additional pastiche material that is nicely written and respectful of the original work, filling in the gaps that Howard left in the story.  The books tell the life story of Conan chronologically, starting with his early years in Cimmeria (“Born on the Battlefield”), moving on to his early adventures (“The Frost Giant's Daughter”, “The Tower of the Elephant”), and has now found its way up to Conan's time with the steppe kozaks (the most recently published collection) and his time as a buccaneer (the series now in monthly publication - “The Road of Kings”).  My understanding is that the next collection, starting next year, will be centered on “The Queen of the Black Coast”.  Check these out – they are a lot of fun.  Great illustrations too. I just picked up the “Black Colossus” collection, and found it particularly appropriate reading for an Ancients wargamer.  Especially the scene of the climatic battle with Conan in command of mercenary forces opposing a sorcerer led desert army, arraying his bow armed medium infantry on the flanking heights, positioning his pikemen in the center of the line, and then leading a flank march attack with his armored heavy cavalry against the rear of his enemy.  The scene with the plate-armored knights rushing off on an impetuous charge against a battleline of Stygian chariots is one that I'm sure will be familiar to anyone who has played in a typical open format Ancients tournament, and right in line with those critics of these kind of competitions who say such matchups are really just fantasy games instead of historical ones.

After spending some time scratching my all-things-Conan itch, one more trip to my attic uncovered another nearly forgotten Sword and Sorcery treasure – my seven volume collection of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories.  I haven't gotten too deeply back into these yet, but I did get through the first volume, “Swords of Deviltry”, including origin stories for Leiber's two legendary anti-heroes, and the classic, multiple award winning tale of how the giant barbarian and the swift footed thief first teamed up - “Ill Met in Lankhmar”.  What a rip-roaring fun time it is reading these stories again!  Reminds me of the early days of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, when it was all something new and mysterious, just published and dominating the shelves of the then more easily found hobby shops of the 1970's and 80's.  Kind of like the Conan stories too, but much more laden with gallows humor and a heavy dose of irony.  I'm looking forward to getting through the next 6 volumes too.

Nothing like that old time Sword and Sorcery.  Yes, I am enjoying HBO's adaption of the “Game of Thrones”, and the books in that series that I have read so far are certainly more than memorable, but the last couple of decades of fantasy literature have been way too dominated in my mind by multi-volume, bloated tomes, anguished urban vampire tales, or child friendly wizard coming of age stories.  It has been thrilling to take a stroll back to the blood-thirsty, short format works of the original masters of this genre.

Hopefully I will get some time soon for painting and gaming so I can post more of that material instead of subjecting people to these kind of reading reminiscences.

3 comments:

  1. I agree regarding the Leiber books.They're pretty hard to beat. And funny. I didn't recall that reading them when I was younger.

    Cool post.

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  2. Great posts on the S&S.

    I have a question about the FOG ruleset and Sword and Sandal gaming in general. I'm new to the mini hobby and am starting in WWII 6mm (a lot of reasons why I won't get into).

    Anyway, Conan, Samurai interest me, to a degree. However, I see the photos of the games and even read tidbits of the history and somehow the gaming portion doesn't come alive. Here's why: it appears you have these large blocks of troops (have to admit that this kind of "scares" me a bit on how much painting this would be!) that just march to the center of the table, roll dice for melee and whoever rolls best wins.

    I know it isn't this way, but I'm looking for someone who obviously enjoys this level of gaming to talk me through what you like about this era and style of gaming.

    Thank you in advance

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  3. Realy nice blog.I agree regarding the Leiber books.Swords

    ReplyDelete