Monday, November 26, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: On Thud and Blunder

I'm firmly of the opinion that it's no mistake Dungeons & Dragons was published when it was. The late '60s saw a huge literary revival of pulp fantasy, thanks in no small part to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter, which kicked off in 1969. And one cannot deny the influence that the first authorized paperback editions of Tolkien's works (also published by Ballantine) had, when they appeared in 1965. This foundation having been laid down, the 1970s proved to be an extraordinarily fruitful period for fantasy literature of all sorts, much of it quite excellent. Of course, given the sheer volume of new fantasies being written during the '70s, it was inevitable that a significant portion of them would be, at best, mediocre and, at worst, execrable. This was particularly the case with regards to "heroic fantasy," the term then used to refer to what we nowadays call sword-and-sorcery tales -- the genre Robert E. Howard pioneered in the 1930s.

It's against this backdrop that Poul Anderson penned his famous essay "On Thud and Blunder," which first appeared in Andrew Offutt's anthology, Swords Against Darkness III, published in 1978. Anderson's essay is both a clear-headed skewering of the worst excesses of then-contemporary sword-and-sorcery stories and a call to arms to writers to do better in their own efforts. Anderson begins his essay with the following "excerpt" from the adventures of Gnorts the Barbarian:
With one stroke of his fifty-pound sword, Gnorts the Barbarian lopped off the head of Nialliv the Wizard. It flew through the air, still sneering, while Gnorts clove two royal guardsmen from vizor through breasplate to steel jockstrap. As he whirled to escape, an arrow glanced off his own chainmail. Then he was gone from the room, into the midnight city. Easily outrunning pursuit, he took a few sentries at the gate by surprise. For a moment, arms and legs hailed around him through showers of blood; then he had opened the gate and was free. A caravan of merchants, waiting to enter at dawn, was camped nearby. Seeing a magnificent stallion tethered, Gnorts released it, twisted the rope into a bridle, and rode it off bareback. After galloping several miles, he encountered a mounted patrol that challenged him. Immediately he plunged into the thick of the cavalrymen, swinging his blade right and left with deadly effect, rearing up his steed to bring its forefeet against one knight who dared to confront him directly. Then it was only to gallop onward. Winter winds lashed his body, attired in nothing more than a bearskin kilt, but he ignored the cold. Sunrise revealed the shore and his waiting longship. He knew the swift-sailing craft could bring him across five hundred leagues of monster-infested ocean in time for him to snatch the maiden princess Elamef away from evil Baron Rehcel while she remained a maiden — not that he intended to leave her in that condition … .
As Anderson immediately admits, the above is "exaggerated" for effect "but, unfortunately, not much." Before moving on to the meat of his essay, he defends heroic fantasy literature as not "inherently inferior" to other kinds of literature, while at the same time recognizing that
every kind of writing is prone to special faults. For example, while no one expects heroic fantasy (hf) to be of ultimate psychological profundity, it is often simple to the point of being simplistic.
The purpose of "On Thud and Blunder," then, is to point out these "special faults" so that writers can avoid them in the future and thus ensure that fantasy literature lives up to its fullest potential. That's an admirable thing in my opinion, but it Anderson's essay is loaded with assumptions that don't always apply -- which is inevitable when you're dealing with fantasy. Anderson takes the tack that heroic fantasy takes place in a pre-industrial society based on historical Europe. That's often the case, but it isn't universally so (look at Tékumel, to cite just one obvious example), making some of his comments and suggestions less broadly pertinent than he might have assumed.

That said, he brings up a large number of good points, such as:
People who have experienced blackouts will tell you that a nighted city without the modern invention of lights is black. With walls shutting off most of the sky — especially along narrow medieval streets — it is far gloomier that any open field. You’d grope your way, unless you had a torch or lantern (and then you’d better have an armed guard). Furthermore, those lanes were open sewers; in many places, stepping stones went down the middle because of that. Despite sanitary measures, metropolitan streets as late as about 1900 were often uncrossable simply because of horse droppings. Graveyards stank too: one reason why incense was used in church services.
The Church raises the subject of religion in general, which is little used in our field. Oh, yes, we may get a hero swearing by his particular gods and perhaps carrying through a small rite, equivalent to stroking a rabbit’s foot. We certainly got plenty of obscene ceremonies in honor of assorted toad-like beings. Both of these do have their historical counterparts. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see an imaginary society which was pervaded by its faith, as many real ones have been.
These are but two small but valuable thoughts Anderson brings to bear in imagining an "improved" heroic fantasy genre, where verisimilitude is given a higher priority than it often is by writers of the genre. No doubt some will see in this essay a schoolmarmish attitude seeking to "take the fun out of" pulp fantasy by making it conform to a narrowly-conceived "reality," but I don't think that's what Anderson was attempting to do at all. Rather, he wanted writers to avoid sloppiness and to ground their stories of fantastical heroism in something more closely approximating a believable world, so as to make both the fantasy and the heroism shine all the brighter. Even if one disagrees with him and his observations, "On Thud and Blunder" is nevertheless and intriguing document from the second flowering of sword-and-sorcery literature and is worth reading for anyone interested in its history.

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