As I mentioned the other day, I’ve never been much into sword and sorcery fantasy, and it’s largely unknown to the friends I game with. I decided to start reading some Conan to at least get a feel for what the stuff is like. “The Phoenix on the Sword,” one of R.E. Howard’s first Conan stories, is a great tale of the barbarian as a king, which relentlessly looks out to a far bigger and older world.
The anthology “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian,” which strives to put together Howard’s original stories in an unmodified form in order of publication. It has a lengthy forward which makes clear something that’s fairly obvious from The Phoenix on the Sword, namely that Howard saw a certain value and freedom in barbarism, and in his stories expressed a distrust of civilization. It occurs to me that in the matter of “barbarism vs. civilization,” Japan’s version of Western fantasy falls squarely on the side of civilization. In Slayers, for example, civilization is pretty unambiguously positive, and the antagonists are mostly savage monsters and ancient demons. In Final Fantasy there has been the occasional evil empire, but savagery isn’t really the solution; a character like Gau (from FF6) is an oddity whose feral upbringing is an adorable character quirk and the basis of an unusual and difficult-to-use ability.
This is especially true when it comes to the way the differing styles of fantasy present magic. In the Conan stories magic is the province of evil sorcerers meddling with forbidden forces that threaten to make them spiral into madness. A magician on or near the throne is a travesty to be undone by a barbarian’s fierce blade. In the Japanese version magic is typically a tool, a kind of neutral technology. That’s why in J-RPGs and anime a school of magic is a viable concept. In the Hyborian Age a school of sorcery would probably be a den of madmen doomed to breed unconscionable evils.
I don’t know if I am in fact onto something here, but it does seem like the old sword and sorcery fantasy, especially that of R.E. Howard (who would’ve happily written historical fiction if he could’ve gotten paid enough for it) harkens back to ancient history, while the Japanese version has a distinctly modern sensibility. Of course, the history of D&D has been a transition from sword and sorcery to modernist fantasy. The Tolkien influence already muddled the sword and sorcery style that Gygax seems to have preferred, and in terms of genre influences D&D became more and more about itself. I think D&D has largely sidestepped the kinds of issues brought up by the notion of barbarism vs. civilization, and any themes inherent in the game as written are more from the way the rules, derived from wargames in a rather haphazard fashion, happened to play out. I haven’t made much of an effort to experience the breadth of what’s out there, but In a Wicked Age really seems to capture the essence of sword and sorcery, in a way that D&D scarcely even aspires to, much less achieves. (Though Dark Sun probably comes a lot closer than any other part of D&D.)
Although I can definitely appreciate the mythic grandeur of Conan and his ilk, I think on the whole my tastes fall more on the side of modernistic fantasy. I like the fantastic things that are possible in the fantasy genre, but I think I find modern sensibilities more capable of involving themes that I can readily relate to. That’s another reason why I’m looking forward to bringing Slime Quest to fruition.