Thursday, April 2, 2015

Forgotten Fathers of Modern Fantasy

Okay, I admit it. When it comes to artists and writers not receiving their due (and I'm not talking about financial compensation, don't even get me started on that), I feel much more like one of my author heroes, the angry pugnacious Harlan Ellison, than another one of my author heroes, the late great Fritz Leiber, who was said to be the consummate gentleman. I can't stand to think about Van Gogh dying from starvation and poverty as his brilliance was being ignored, while now they sell his paintings for millions of dollars. Such thoughts can make me sad, depressed, angry, even prone toward violence against inanimate objects.

Of course, it's a bit easier to take if the person has passed on, because mortal woes must be small potatoes in infinity. They are surely not upset about it anymore, why should I be?

First, I would like to do my part on keeping us honest. Whether good or bad, the past should not be forgotten, and should be given its due. If not, we learn nothing, repeat mistakes and never evolve. We live in a perpetually egoistic culture that thinks every time it shits it smells like roses and that it invented everything under the sun.

Second, and probably more importantly, out of love. We should love those who devoted their lives to perfecting their talents and sharing the harvest of that labor with the world.

I love many authors, but I will only mention those who are relevant to the fantasy adventure genre, because they are often overlooked and not given the credit they deserve for creating the genre that is now taken for granted.

Those authors are: Fritz Leiber (creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane) and Jack Vance (creator of the Dying Earth and Cugel the Clever). Of these three, Howard is the most well-known, though in truth, most mainstream audiences would only be aware of the name Conan (from the movie) as opposed to R. E. Howard.
Fritz Leiber, Jr.

In a recent blog by Charlie Jane Anders, 10 Authors Who Wrote Gritty, Realistic Fantasy Before George R.R. Martin, the titled list is given. Nowhere are listed the three authors that helped define the genre. The list only goes back as far as the fabulous Micheal Moorcock (who is considered part of the new wave after Leiber, Howard and Vance). This alone shows that something is amiss. Leiber, Howard and Vance were "gritty." As far as "realistic" goes, this is where the problem really arises. I believe the term that Anders really means to use is "modern." Each generation views as realistic those parts of daily life or those current cultural reactions, morals and emotions that it experiences in its time. That is what makes it "modern."

Robert E. Howard
I, personally, see nothing less "realistic" in the fantastic tales told by Leiber, Howard and Vance than those told by modern authors. There are points of some of the stories, especially by Howard, that seem dated by today's standards. However, who is to say that the behavior and concerns and reactions of the people in Howard's Cimmerian age are not "realistic." Were one to go back to ancient Persian times, it would seem completely unrealistic. Simply read a book of ancient history and half the events that happened and the way people acted do not seem "realistic." In fact, some of the things that actually happened are unbelievable.

If we judge Leiber, Howard and Vance by the term "modern," meaning what holds up now, I would still say that most of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories and Jack Vance's Dying Earth tales hold up. They do not seem dated. (Yet, one must remember the market for whom stories are written. Leiber and Howard were writing for the pulps, which had a younger male audience, whereas the writers mentioned in Ander's blog are mass market books written for major publishers).

Jack Vance
So, I am understandably perturbed when these three great authors, the fathers of the genre (who strongly influenced that "modern" author,  George R. R. Martin, as he says in an interview) are completely ignored. Leiber himself coined the term "sword and sorcery" for what they were writing at the time. One hundred years from now, people will still be reading Leiber, Vance and Howard. I wonder how well the currently-praised "modern" authors will hold up in fifty or one hundred years time. No doubt most of that work will not seem "realistic" or "modern" anymore.

Raymond Feist called Fritz Leiber the “spiritual father [of] most fantasy writers.” But his influence goes much further than that. Michael Chabon, the Pullitzer-prize winning literary author, is a huge fan of Leiber's (he provides the afterward for a collection called Selected Stories: Fritz Leiber, Neil Gaiman provides the foreword), and said that he learned to write by reading Leiber's stories. His book, Gentleman of the Road, is a tribute to Leiber, as well as Dumas, Moorcock and others.

Without Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard and Jack Vance, most of the current fantasy adventure authors (including the ones on Ander's blog list) would never have written the stories they wrote. It is impossible to not be influenced by these three, for they built the very foundations upon which the sword and sorcery genre stands.

Please, give them their due. It is the least they deserve from we who have inherited the legacy of their rich treasures.

Happy reading adventures!
Robert Zoltan

Addendum: Other authors were of course influential as well. I name Leiber, Howard and Vance as ones who had the most impact but are most overlooked. There are other greats, such as Poul Anderson (who I could actually name as a fourth—his work heavily influenced Michael Moorcock), Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith. C. L. Moore (Catherine Moore), etc. (and of course Tolkien, although he is more "high fantasy," and needs no more credit). I recommend reading them as well if you are interested in the genre or the roots of the genre.

Recommended Reading:
Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. Start with the award-winning story, "Ill Met in Lankhmar" from this volume.
Robert E. Howard: Many printings exist of his Conan stories. Start with the story "The Tower of the Elephant." Here's one volume:
Jack Vance: The Dying Earth. Ignore the completely inaccurate hard sci-fi cover art of this edition:

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