Serpent Folk

Serpent People: The Myths, the Fiction and the History

As soon as I start talking about serpent people, I find that people look at me as though they think I’ve gone crazy. That’s probably David Icke’s fault, but we’ll get to that.

What can I say? I just think that serpent people are cool, and some of my favourite stories of all time have featured serpent people in some form or other. Some of the very best are those that just use the classic myths as a background and then build on them.

Today, I’m going to be telling you everything you need to know about serpent people, from their origins in classical mythology to the science behind them and the place they’ve earned for themselves in popular culture. Let’s slither on in.

The Mythology

Serpent people have been around for years, and we can see signs of them in the tale of Medusa, the woman with snakes for hair who turned people to stone with her gaze, although she’s technically a (wo)man serpent. Snakes have long been associated with evil, presumably because of the very real fear of death due to a snakebite. It makes sense that they’d show up as a personification of evil.

In most tales, serpent men are depicted as human-like figures with scaly skin and the heads of snakes or other reptiles. They’re typically descended from a lineage that goes way back, often essentially evolving in parallel in the same way that homo sapiens descended from apes.

Another common theme with serpent men is that they usually have the ability to disguise themselves as human beings. This is where the idea of “lizards in people suits” comes from, although the older legends usually say that they’re able to do this because they have magical powers or other abilities.

Note that serpent men are different to “man serpents”, which are typically depicted the other way round, having the bodies of giant snakes but the heads of human beings. Medusa is a classic example of this, and indeed many other man serpents have the hypnotic stare and superhuman strength that the snake queen is known for.

Nagas and Lamias

Another mythic type of serpent people are the nagas and lamias, although they’re pretty similar to Medusas and as such are more like man serpents. Usually depicted with a human’s head, arms and torso and a snake’s lower body, they’re basically the reptilian equivalent of centaurs. Female nagas and lamias are usually supernaturally beautiful.

The origins of these creatures can, of course, be traced back to folklore. In the traditional tales, Lamia was a Libyan queen who ate children, but it’s thought that the popular image of her was subverted by John Keats, who might have combined Lamia with Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who’s associated with the snake in the Garden of Eden.

Nagas, meanwhile, come from India. If you’ve read the Harry Potter series then you’ll remember Nagini, Voldemort’s snake. She takes her name from the term for a female naga, with male nagas usually being called nagin. Nagas show their Hindu roots because they’re often depicted with more than one pair of arms. Sometimes, they even have multiple heads.

Robert E. Howard

The first appearance of true “serpent people” was in Robert E. Howard’s King Kull stories. Howard, as you might remember, is the creator of the Conan series and an icon in sword and sorcery communities. He’s arguably the reason why sword and sorcery is popular in the first place.

Howard called his creation “serpent men”, and they first appeared in a story called The Shadow Kingdom, which itself was published in the iconic Weird Tales magazine at the end of the 1920s. Interestingly, they were given a second life in the 1970s when Marvel released its Kull the Conqueror adaptations, effectively introducing serpent men into the Marvel cinematic universe.

H. P. Lovecraft

Another important thing to note is that in Howard’s work, the serpent men were one of the few examples of creatures from long, long ago, their dominion being measured in terms of the cosmos as opposed to the lifespan of man. This in some ways makes it a precursor to the unique brand of cosmic horror that H. P. Lovecraft helped to pioneer, a subject that I’ve written about at length before.

The interesting thing about Howard’s serpent men is that they were then adopted as a part of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, although most of the legwork was done by Lin Carter and Clark Ashton Smith. Some of Lovcecraft’s own short stories, including The Nameless City and The Haunter of the Dark, mention pre-human races of lizard people.

In fact, this also means that serpent people are directly connected to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and the two of them officially live in the same universe. That’s pretty cool because they also pop up in Spider-Man, making them also part of the Marvel EU. I love the way that they all relate back to each other, even though some of the links are a little obscure. There’s even a cross between a demon and a serpent man that fought against the Avengers.

According to the mythos, the serpent people lived at roughly the same time as the dinosaurs, although they weren’t wiped out by the fateful meteorite. Instead, they dispersed all over the world, warring with mankind and eventually going underground.

Other names for serpent people include “snake men”, “serpent men”, “serpent folk” and “valusians”. And perhaps unsurprisingly, most named serpent people have names that evoke their flickering tongues and serpent-like features. Just a few of the most well-known serpent people include Ssathasaa, Sss’haa, Ssrhythssaa and Zloigm. Try saying those after you’ve had a few drinks.

Reptoids

In popular culture, when we talk about serpent people, most people’s minds automatically go to reptoids. Also known as reptilians, lizard people, saurians, draconians and reptiloids, reptoids are theoretical reptilian humanoids, and the concept was popularised by conspiracy theorist David Icke.

Icke believes that shape-shifting reptoids control the human race by assuming human forms and taking on important positions in global governments and at the top of society. It’s a bit like the Illuminati, except that the Illuminati isn’t made up of serpent people in lizard suits.

I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on Icke’s ideas because you can look them up for yourself if you’re interested. I’m not too interested in them myself, but I do think it’s fascinating that they’re almost certainly inspired by (if not based on) the serpent people of Robert E. Howard.

In fact, most historians agree that Icke’s theories draw upon earlier myths and legends, and it’s pretty easy to see the parallels. Loosely speaking, Icke says that the world is being run by blood-drinking, shape-shifting serpent people who are adopting positions of power (including in the British Royal family and the Bush family).

They come from the Alpha Draconis star system and are living in underground bases while plotting to overthrow the human race. And whether you believe Icke or not, it’s hard to ignore the fact that at least some people do. According to one 2013 poll, as many as 4% of registered US voters believe in Icke’s ideas.

As for me, I’d rather read Howard or Lovecraft.

Conclusion

Now that you know a little more about serpent people, it’s over to you so that you can start carrying out a little more research of your own. If you’re a novelist, perhaps you can start to use serpent people as a plot device, while if you’re a keen movie buff then you could check out some of the movies that use serpent people as a plot device.

Of course, if you’re into conspiracy theories then you could also look into David Icke and what he thinks, although I’d caution you to take that with a pinch of salt. Far more interesting to me is the history behind snake people and where the legends come from. Snakes themselves have a lot of symbolic power, and you see them being represented everywhere from stories about Medusa to the parceltongue in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

So now you’ve heard a few of my thoughts, I want to hear from you. Be sure to let me know your thoughts on serpent people and the legends that they feature in by leaving a comment, or by reaching out to me on your favourite social networking site. Until next time!

Younger Dryas

The Science Behind the Younger Dryas

Building on from my last few posts where I’ve investigated lost civilisations and the legends of Atlantis and Lemuria, today I want to take a look at something else that happened a long time ago (though not in a galaxy far, far away).

I think that by looking back to the past, we can uncover insights about the future. We also get a better understanding of who we are and where we’re from, and we can become more empathetic if we start to realise that our cultures aren’t necessarily so different after all.

Today, we’re going to talk about the Younger Dryas, a subject that most people haven’t even heard of. I hadn’t heard of it myself until a couple of years ago, but then I started to carry out some research and I quickly got sucked in and hooked on the topic.

So what exactly is the Younger Dryas? Read on to find out…

The History of the Younger Dryas

Perhaps a more accurate question would be “what exactly was the Younger Dryas?”. It’s essentially a period in our planet’s history that occurred around 12,900 to 11,700 years BP.

In case you’re wondering, that stands for “Before Present” and refers to the period in our history that occurred before the development of carbon dating techniques. The “present” is considered to be January 1st 1950, meaning that the Younger Dryas period was around 10,750 – 9,750 BC.

During this time, the earth witnessed a sharp decline in temperatures over a remarkably short period of time (decades as opposed to millennia). Given that this had a major impact on many different ecosystems, you can imagine the kind of effect that this sudden change had.

So what exactly happened? Well, we don’t necessarily know, although there are a bunch of different theories out there, some of them more plausible than others.

The Younger Dryas Hypothesis

One of the more interesting theories about what happened to the Younger Dryas is that a large asteroid or comet disintegrated into large fragments, which then showered down over North and South America, Europa and Asia.

There’s a certain amount of evidence to support this, too. For example, we’ve found large concentrations of platinum and nano-diamonds across over fifty different global sites. It’s posited that these are as a result of the impact, and that’s certainly one explanation for something that we otherwise can’t really understand.

Some scientists have argued that the collision of such a comet could also have led to widescale destruction, burning biomasses and essentially triggering a mini ice age. There’s a lot of evidence that this mini ice age happened, and so it’s really the causes which are up for debate. Although it’s not just the causes that people like to talk about.

For example, many followers of the Younger Dryas Hypothesis suggest that these comet fragments also wiped out a previous civilisation. Given my last blog post on lost civilisations and the prevalence of real lost civilisations from all over the planet, this doesn’t seem particularly implausible, although it can be hard to find definitive evidence either way because of how many years ago it took place.

Previous civilisations and extinction

In the same way that it’s believed that a meteor strike brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs, it’s believed by many that the Younger Dryas meteor caused the widespread demise of animal and plant life. Of course, if this was the case, we’d expect to see some sort of evidence, and there are certainly clues out there for those who are looking.

The problem is that they’re just that – clues. Clues can be interpreted differently, and that’s why the Younger Dryas is such a hotly debated topic. Supporters of the comet hypothesis will tell you that it led to the extinction of a whole bunch of North American animals, ranging from camels and mammoths to the giant short-faced bear.

In recent years, the Younger Dryas has undergone renewed scrutiny, in part because of the popularity of a book called Fingerprints of the Gods by Charles Hapgood. In it, Hapgood suggests that a lost civilisation in Antarctica had been forced to relocate to the South Pole and that they’d been buried beneath the polar ice cap. He cited the work of Rand Flem-Ath, who’s researched this area before and suggested that the civilisation beneath the ice could be Atlantis.

What the evidence says

A wide range of different evidence has been cited to point towards the Younger Dryas hypothesis, including a strata of organic-rich soil that’s been discovered at numerous locations in North America. These locations are also said to house an abundance of nanodiamonds, magnetic spherules (whatever they are) and iridium, platinum and more.

This is actually a reasonably convincing argument, because it’s difficult to explain these phenomena away as a byproduct of any other natural process. But there’s evidence against it too, such as the fact that a study found that there was no sign of a population decline around the Younger Dryas, as we might expect to see. In fact, there’s even evidence to suggest overall growth in the global population towards the end of the Younger Dryas.

There’s also evidence to show that the widespread extinctions occurred at different times, which implies that perhaps a meteor impact isn’t really what’s to blame here. For example, it seems as though the extinctions in North America happened 400 years before the extinctions in South America.

There’s also been a lot of research into why certain species went extinct while others didn’t. For example, more larger animals seem to have disappeared than smaller ones. It’s also strange how some large mammals disappeared while others remained behind. This is seen as an argument against the comet impact hypothesis because it should have wiped out all of them.

Perhaps the most damning argument against the comet theory is that, so far at least, nobody has been able to show evidence of extra-terrestrial metals, which would presumably be brought in by such an impact. In fact, it’s really a case that there’s no concrete evidence either way, mostly because of the astronomical periods of time that we’re talking about.

What I think

That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a popular topic for discussion. If you spend a little time digging, you’ll find no shortage of scientific papers arguing for and against the comet hypothesis, with many papers responding to previous papers by people on the other side of the debate. It’s a scientific back and forth, and that’s one of the reasons why I find it so fascinating to research and to write about.

As for me, I still haven’t quite decided what I think, although I do think that there’s a lot to be said about both sides of the argument. There’s an argument that a crater in Greenland is the site of one of the meteor-strikes, but scientists are still divided on what caused it.

One thing that people do point out is that the odds of such an impact are almost miniscule, and so the fact that it’s said to have happened so recently would make it statistically improbable, though not impossible. Strangers things have certainly happened, especially when we look at the context of the entire universe.

Ultimately, it’s one of those mysterious conundrums that we might never get a definite answer to. Even if we do, it might not come in our lifetimes. Still, that doesn’t make it any less interesting to speculate over, which is why I’ve shared this brief introduction to get you started on your journey.

Conclusion

Now that you know a little more about the Younger Dryas, it’s time for you to do some further research of your own. It’s a truly fascinating topic and one that’s had an impact on many of the books that we read, as you’ll already be familiar with if you’ve read some of my previous posts.

If nothing else, I think that the story of the Younger Dryas is a warning to us about the dangers of climate change and the impact it can have. Anthropogenic climate change aside it had a huge impact in the past and can happen again.  We could end up undergoing a period of change that’s just as cataclysmic.

Now it’s time for you to take over and to share your thoughts on the Younger Dryas by leaving a comment. What do you think happened during this fascinating point in history? Do you agree with the comet hypothesis? And do you think it could have wiped out earlier civilisations? Be sure to let me know what you think with a comment so that we can keep the discussion going!

Lost Civilisation Header

 

Lost Civilisations and the Fiction Behind the Fact

 

I’ve always had an obsession with sunken islands and lost civilisations, ever since I was a little kid. As I grew older, I learned they were “just stories”, and then as I grew older still, I learned that there was a grain of truth to the stories, which promptly blew my mind.

 

Don’t worry, though, because I’m not one of those conspiracy nuts who thinks that Atlantis is in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle or that a race of merpeople is getting ready for an invasion. With that said, I still think that lost civilisations are fascinating, and today we’re going to be taking a little look at a few of the main lost civilisations in both fact and fiction.

What is a lost civilisation?

Lets get exploring!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before we go any further, we should first take a look at exactly what we mean when we’re talking about a lost civilisation. Broadly speaking, a lost civilisation is any type of human (or otherwise, especially in fantasy) civilisation that’s no longer represented amongst our general population.

Semantically, there’s a slight difference between a lost civilisation and a dead civilisation. The Roman Empire represents a dead civilisation, but it was never lost because their influence lives on today. Likewise, Latin is a dead language, but it’s not a lost language because we still know how it works. It’s just that there are no longer any native Latin speakers, and indeed we don’t know for sure how it actually sounded.

Our real world is full of examples of lost civilisations, and we’re going to take a look at those a little later on in this article. But when we’re talking about lost civilisations in literature, we’re generally talking more specifically about mythical civilisations. Fiction allows us to see these mythical and often downright fictitious civilisations up close and personal, often before whichever cataclysmic event led to their downfall.

Two of the most popular and most interesting lost civilisations are Atlantis and Lemuria, and much of Robert E. Howard’s work can be said to focus on lost civilisations. In fact, his Hyborian Age is essentially a lost epoch in our planet’s history. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular civilisations.

All about Atlantis

Atlantis is arguably the most famous lost civilisation, iconic for sinking beneath the waves. Used as an allegory for hubris, Atlantis is first recorded in some of Plato’s works. Interestingly enough, in Plato’s stories, it represents a rival naval power that attacks his native Athens. When it sank beneath the waves, it was because they’d fallen out of favour with the gods.

Atlantis is actually not particularly important in Plato’s original stories, but the story has taken on a life of its own and has become an important part of popular culture. In fact, people are so obsessed with the story of Atlantis that many pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists have tried to locate it. Unfortunately, Plato didn’t exactly leave directions, and so all we really know is that Atlantis was said to have disappeared beneath the waves sometime before 9,000 BC and that it can be found beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

For the most part, most literary scholars and history buffs agree that Atlantis is fictional, but there’s some debate around where the inspiration for the story comes from. As with most storytellers of his time, Plato borrowed freely from other stories and other traditions, and so it’s likely that there’s an even older tale of a sunken city that Socrates was inspired by.

Some of the historic events that Atlantis has been linked to include the Minoan eruption of 1,600 BC, as well as the so-called Sea Peoples and even the Trojan War, the source of the legend of the wooden horse of Troy. But perhaps it doesn’t matter whether Atlantis was inspired by these events in the same way that it doesn’t really matter if the island of Atlantis is even real. I’d rather investigate the stories that they allow us to tell.

Learning about Lemuria

Lemuria is essentially another take on Atlantis, a purported lost land that’s said to be somewhere in either the Indian or the Pacific Ocean. It was originally adopted by scientists and other thinkers, but it’s now seen as discredited and a dead theory. That doesn’t make it any less interesting to learn about, though.

As with Atlantis, even after the initial death of the theory, Lemuria went on to find a place in popular culture. And also like Atlantis, some people have claimed to have discovered its present-day location, with many Tamil writers drawing parallels with Kumari Kandam, another mythical lost continent that’s said to be south of India in the Indian Ocean.

The original Lemuria theory had it depicted as a former land bridge that’s sunk beneath the waves, although we now know more about plate tectonics and can disprove that theory. Curiously enough, these types of sunken continents exist in our own world, including in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but none of them could be Lemuria.

As it turns out, Madagascar and India were originally part of the same landmass, but there wasn’t a mythical bridge as the Lemurian theorists would have you believe. Instead, they simply slotted together as part of a larger “supercontinent” called Gondwanaland. If you’re a comic fantasy fan and this sounds familiar, it’s probably because Terry Pratchett parodied it in his Discworld series with Howondaland.

The problem with the Lemuria myth is that Gondwanaland didn’t sink under the ocean. Instead, it broke apart and the pieces slowly floated away from each other.

The “real” lost civilisations

As you can tell from the real story of Gondwanaland, just because some of the most popular takes on lost civilisations are fictional, it doesn’t mean that they all are. There are countless real lost civilisations, and most of them became lost because they were wiped out by larger tribes and empires. The Romans and the Greeks did a lot for us, but they also created a more homogenous culture and wiped out a lot of history.

Just a few of the most fascinating lost civilisations in our real history include:

  • The Khmer Empire: Located in Southeast Asia over 1,500 years ago, this empire was particularly known for its naval strength. Angkor, their capital city, was the largest city in the world at one time with around a million people.
  • The Mayans: In popular culture, the Mayans are arguably most-known for their calendar, and the popular conspiracy theory that they’d predicted the end of the world in 2012 because of it. Spanning much of South America, the Mayan civilisation itself has long since died out, though there are still millions of people of Mayan descent and a couple of dozen surviving Mayan languages.
  • The Aztecs: This civilisation rose to power in around 1300-1500 AD in modern-day Mexico. Sadly, they were wiped out by Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes, who overthrew the empire and brought their reign to an end.
  • The Babylonians: You might have heard of the Babylonians because of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Their capital city is said to be the first in the world to reach a population of over 200,000, and its remains are in modern-day Iraq, not too far south of Baghdad.
  • The Tiwanaku: This Bolivian empire existed towards the end of the first century AD. When the Incas discovered them, they thought the Tiwanaku were made by the gods due to the grandness of their cities.
  • The Incas: The Inca Empire was the largest empire in America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, effectively coming to an end at the hands of the Spanish in the late 1500s. Its size varied, but at its biggest, it covered parts of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Columbia.

You might get the impression from this list that lost civilisations are almost exclusive to Asia and South America, but the truth is that there are lost civilisations all over the world. You just have to look for them, which is somewhat ironic.

For me, I find them to be a fascinating area of research, not only because it exposes me to new cultures but also because we can often borrow from them to create new fictional tales of lost lands and lost peoples.

The future

It’s been said that there’s no such thing as an original idea, and it’s certainly true that most of the stories that we hear today are inspired by other stories that have come before them. In the future, then, we can expect to see more and more stories of lost civilisations, especially because they can do a great job of reflecting our own society.

Part of the reason why stories about lost civilisations are thriving is that they tap into the very real threat of our modern society collapsing. Humanity and society have always been under threat, but we’re arguably more threatened than ever before thanks to COVID-19, global warming and other existential threats.

Stories of lost civilisations can help us to make sense of our own reality, and they can also help us to prepare for the future by showing us a glimpse of what different scenarios might look like. But more than that, they can help us to expand our minds.

George R. R. Martin famously said that a reader lives a thousand lives while the non-reader lives only once. What’s interesting to me is that every time we consume a story, we also consume the setting of the story. That means that reading novels can expose us to new cultures, and in the case of lost civilisations, it can expose us to cultures that we might not otherwise have experienced.

So even though the world feels like it’s getting smaller and smaller as technology continues to evolve, there’s still a place for stories about lost civilisations. Sure, we might not discover any new real examples, but that’s where fiction comes in. And I for one can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring for today’s generation of writers.

Atlantis Banner

Exploring the Origins of Atlantis and its Place in Sword and Sorcery

In our last couple of articles, we’ve taken a closer look at some of the different myths and legends that have fed into sword and sorcery mythology, and this post will be no different. The truth is that sword and sorcery is such a huge, diverse genre that it’s influenced by a little bit of everything.

Today, we’re going to be climbing into our diving gear and heading under the water to pay a visit to the sunken island of Atlantis, starting out by taking a look at its origins and moving on to take a look at how sword and sorcery has felt its impact.

Like many myths and legends, the tale of Atlantis dates back at least a couple thousand years, and while it does go hand-in-hand with sword and sorcery, it’s been used in pretty much every genre there is. So what is it about Atlantis that makes it so enduring? And who are some of the authors – both classic and contemporary – who’ve used its story to good effect?

Let’s jump into the water and find out.

The origins of Atlantis

The lost island of Atlantis has its origins in philosophy, and in fact it’s the brainchild of Greek philosopher Plato. Taught by Socrates, Plato taught Aristotle, who then taught Alexander the Great, arguably the closest thing our real world has to a sword and sorcery hero.

Much of what Plato talked about was based on real events, but the legend of Atlantis has essentially been proved to be false, though there are still one or two people who’ll swear there’s evidence that it once existed.

Plato first told his followers the story of Atlantis in around 360 BC, nearly two and a half millennia ago. According to Plato, the Atlantians were half god and half human and they lived in a perfect society that can best be described as a heavenly Venice. He said that Atlantis existed around 9,000 years earlier and that its stories had been passed down orally from generation to generation, but his own testimony is the earliest known reference to the sunken island.

No one really knows exactly where Atlantis was supposed to be, and historians and mythologists alike have made suggestions that literally span the globe. In fact, its exact location doesn’t really matter when we’re talking about its influence on sword and sorcery, because it’s usually being ported into some unusual fantasy world anyway.

The only thing that really matters for our purposes is how the legend ends, which is always the same. The island disappeared beneath the sea and was never heard from again. At least, not until it started popping up in our literature.

Atlantis and Robert E. Howard

You can’t talk about Atlantis in sword and sorcery without talking about Robert E. Howard. He’s the creator of many of sword and sorcery’s most well-known characters, most notably Conan the Barbarian, but he also used Atlantis and Atlantian mythology to create Kull the Conqueror. You might have heard of him under his other name, Kull of Atlantis.

Kull came first, and he’s arguably a less refined version of Conan who’s set amongst a different backdrop. Born in around 100,000 BC, Kull lives in an Atlantis that’s populated by barbarian tribes and which lies on the west of the continent of Thuria. Kull’s own tribe is from the Tiger Valley, an area of Atlantis which was destroying by flooding, foreshadowing the eventual fate of the whole island.

Kull is interesting because there are similarities between Kull and the character of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. In fact, he’s arguably the Atlantian Mowgli, because he survived alone in the wild from a young age before being adopted by the Sea-Mountain tribe. Kull is eventually exiled from Atlantis and spends a short period as a pirate, further continuing that watery theme.

There’s more to Kull’s story of course, but we don’t want to spoil it for you and his later years don’t tie back as heavily to the theme of his early years in Atlantis. Kull himself only featured in a dozen stories, and only three of those were published before Howard’s death in 1936. Howard later reused many of the elements of his Kull mythos to create the character of Conan, but he ultimately left the Atlantis elements behind to establish Conan instead as a Cimmerian.  

Atlantis in Sword and Sorcery

But that’s not where Atlantis’ influence on sword and sorcery comes to an end. In some cases, as with Kull of Atlantis, the connection is more direct and more obvious. In other cases, it’s used subtly, with story elements or little nods to the original myth.

Robert E. Howard wasn’t the only one of his contemporaries to write about Atlantis. For example, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about a colony of Atlantis, called Opar, in his Tarzan series. More recently, Kara Dalkey wrote her Water Trilogy, which mixes up both Arthurian and Atlantian legends. There’s really nothing quite like it.

Even earlier than Howard, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a novel called The Maracot Deep in which a deep-sea diving team finds the lost city beneath the waves. Conan Doyle didn’t live long enough to witness the rise of sword and sorcery, but he did use elements of it in his historical fiction novels about the swashbuckling Brigadier Gerard and the adventures of The White Company.

In her The Fall of Atlantis series, Marion Zimmer Bradley channels the spirit of sword and sorcery and mixes it up with the Atlantis legend to tell the story of Britain’s ancient druids. For Zimmer Bradley, the druids were the direct descendants of the survivors of Atlantis. Even the Godzilla series looked to get on board with a novel called Godzilla and the Lost Continent that was eventually shelved by Random House before it could be published.

And when it comes to more hardcore, traditional sword and sorcery, you’ll want to check out Sherrilyn Kenyon and her Dark-Hunter series. Following a hero called Alak, the series also has elements of the paranormal, its own impressive mythology system and a bunch of reinterpretations of Greek myths. The leader of the Dark-Hunters is a former Atlantian god.

A new take on Atlantis

As with anything that becomes a cliché, the legend of Atlantis then started to spawn a range of new interpretations which played with the legend or which looked at it from a different light. One of my favourite examples of this is Sir Terry Pratchett, who used a spin on the Atlantis tale in his Discworld novel, Jingo.

Here, instead of Atlantis sinking beneath the sea, it suddenly rises, catching two rival fishermen unawares. Each stakes a claim to it on behalf of their respective nations, and before we know it, two of the Disc’s most powerful armies are at each other’s throats, preparing to go to war. Of course, it would be more like traditional sword and sorcery if his epic barbarian character Cohen the Barbarian made an appearance, but it’s still a cracking take on the Atlantis myth.

Atlantis even appeared in K. A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, which has helped to introduce the legend to a new generation of readers. But let’s not forget the older takes on Atlantis, those that predate the sword and sorcery genre. We haven’t even talked about Jules Verne and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which the crew of the Nautilus walks along the sea bottom before discovering the sunken ruins of the island. Nor have we talked about John Wyndham and his The Kraken Wakes, which features a terrifying deep sea monster.

The lost island even gets a namecheck in Eoin Colfer’s crazy popular Artemis Fowl series, as well as a little reference in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The fact is, it’s virtually impossible to write about the water without feeling the spectre of the Atlantis myth hovering on the horizon. There are even those who’ll swear that the cataclysmic flood in the Bible is what drove Atlantis beneath the waves in the first place. If nothing else, the Kraken Wakes, the Bible and the Atlantis myth all tap into our sense of wonder about the water.

The earth’s surface is 70% water, and even with today’s advanced technologies, there’s a lot we don’t know about the ocean. In fact, as much as 80% of the ocean is unexplored, and so who’s to say? Perhaps the lost continent of Atlantis is out there somewhere after all.

Conclusion

We’ve covered a lot today, but there’s no way that we could cover absolutely everything. That’s why we want to hear from you! If you’ve come across other examples of sword and sorcery tapping into the legend of Atlantis, be sure to let us know in the comments.

Ultimately, the main conclusion to be found here is that the Atlantis tale is super adaptable and that it sneaks its way into every genre, and not just sword and sorcery. Sure, there are a few natural ways in which the two can work together symbiotically, but with so many authors out there – and so many genres – we shouldn’t be surprised to see it cropping up everywhere.

As for me, all this talk about Atlantis and sword and sorcery has got me wanting to revisit some of the classics, and so I think I’m off to revisit some of the books and movies that we’ve talked about in this article. It’s a good job I can swim!

Article Written by Dane Cobain for Epiphany Entertainment

Copyright ©Epiphany Entertainment 2020

Cosmic Horror

Cosmic Horror and H. P. Lovecraft’s Influence on Sword and Sorcery

Sword and sorcery is one of my favourite genres, in part because it comes with a certain amount of nostalgia for me, but I’m also partial to a little bit of cosmic horror here and there. In fact, one of my favourite things is when I’m reading some other book, perhaps a thriller or a suspense novel, and little elements of cosmic horror start to creep in.

It happens more often than you might imagine, and there are quite a few reasons for that. One of the biggest reasons is a chap called H. P. Lovecraft, who you’ve probably heard of. His name is synonymous with both cosmic horror and weird fiction, and while he never really wrote straight up sword and sorcery, he certainly had an influence on its development.

That’s why today, we’ll be taking a closer look at H. P. Lovecraft, his unique brand of madness and the influence that it’s had on the genre of sword and sorcery.

Cosmic Horror

The most obvious place to start here is by defining cosmic horror, a term that’s often used interchangeably with the term Lovecraftian horror because they’re essentially the same thing. Cosmic horror brings together elements of horror and science fiction to tell stories that exploit our fear of the unknown and the unknowable, often with the idea that there are things underpinning our reality that are so horrible that to see them would drive us mad or otherwise harm us.

Lovecraft developed an interest in the cosmos after learning about physics and astronomy as a child, something which gave him a deep-seated feeling of mankind’s insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Much cosmic horror is underpinned by the idea that humanity resides in a deep, dark cosmos in which many strange, incomprehensible things are watching us. Interestingly, despite the horror, these entities aren’t always malevolent – sometimes they’re indifferent, and that’s just as bad.

To understand cosmic horror, it helps to first understand Lovecraft. He was something of an anomaly, a man out of time who got much of his sensibilities from the literature of the 18th century. This also goes some way towards explaining why he’s been accused of racism and xenophobia, and not without some merit. But we’re not here to talk about Lovecraft’s politics. We’re here to talk about his incomparable body of work, as well as some of the ideas that Lovecraft’s work has led to.

Deep Time

One of Lovecraft’s most interesting concepts is the idea of deep time, which is essentially the concept that the entirety of human history is but a blink of an eye in the face of the cosmos. Comparing it to a clock, if the earth was formed at midnight and the present day is 24 hours later, humans didn’t show up until 23:58 and 43 seconds.

In the excellent 2008 documentary H. P. Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, author Caitlin R. Kiernan explained, “Most people tend to think of history in terms of years. Deep time is that time before the comprehension of man. Geological time. You’re working on a timescale where mountains are pushed up and eroded, continents shift, species evolve and become extinct. It’s not really something we can process.”

Lovecraft takes this idea to its logical conclusion, and many of his stories are simply about these old, old evils, the old gods and the strange creatures which predate human memory. This had been done before to an extent, and it’s a staple of much sword and sorcery, but Lovecraft was the first to take those gods and creatures and to show what would happen if they appeared in today’s modern world.

If you thought the dinosaurs of 65 million years ago were crazy enough, wait until you meet the eldritch abominations which are billions of years old – and which have been watching our planet through their dozens of eyes since it first started to form.

The thought of it alone gives me the heebie jeebies, perhaps in part because the hugeness of the universe and the incomprehensibility of deep time keep me awake at night and spark off my anxiety. Lovecraft was able to tap into this deep-seated and very human fear to exploit the emotions of his readership while simultaneously creating his very own genre of fiction from scratch.

In many ways, this reminds me of what Stephen King does with his work. Carrie taps into our fear of social humiliation to make us feel sympathy for the protagonist. The Shining taps into our fear of isolation and being cut off from society. The Stand taps into our (all too legitimate) fears of a global pandemic wiping out most of the population. And I’m still not sure whether he wrote IT because people are scared of clowns or whether people are scared of clowns because he wrote IT.

King himself is a big Lovecraft fan, and it comes across in his work. His famous recurring line of “there are other worlds than these” could well be referring to the mysterious Lovecraftian dimensions from which Cthulhu and other beasties can be summoned through the Necronomicon.

Cosmic Horror in Sword and Sorcery

So how are cosmic horror and deep time linked to sword and sorcery? Well, let’s start with deep time. One of the most obvious comparisons here is the fact that a substantial chunk of sword and sorcery – and fantasy in general – is presented as a land lost in time. In some cases, the fictional worlds are presented as taking place on our planet, but so many millennia ago that the continents and the creatures look vastly different to what we have today.

But to draw that comparison is to underscore just how deep a deep time story can go. With deep time, continents merge and break apart at the speed of a timelapse. Entire species come and go in the blink of an eye.

With that said, we can easily see the influence of deep time in many of the beasts and creatures that the heroes are sent off to fight. In Conan the Destroyer, for example, Robert E. Howard’s iconic barbarian faces off against a manifestation of Dagoth, the Dreaming God. Dagoth is summoned by the placing of a magical horn and a virgin sacrifice as opposed to through the Necronomicon, but otherwise he could easily be some many-tentacled Cthulhian monstrosity.

As for cosmic and Lovecraftian horror, there are definitely echoes of many of Lovecraft’s ideas in some of the harder sword and sorcery. But for me, some of the most interesting parallels between cosmic horror and sword and sorcery occur when we dig down and look at language and writing styles.

H.P. Lovecraft had a unique style of writing, to the point at which you could pick up one of his stories with no name attached to it and immediately know it’s a Lovecraft story from the way it’s written. Even certain words have a Lovecraftian feel. He was a big fan of describing things as Eldritch, for example, or of describing the moon as gibbous.

Lovecraft’s impact on alternative fiction, horror, science fiction and fantasy is impossible to overstate. And just like the way that generations of novelists have emulated and echoed Ernest Hemingway, often without even realising it, many SFF writers do the same thing with Lovecraft. I’ve done it myself without even noticing it. Lovecraft is just that closely associated with the genre.

And this has a delicious knock-on effect when it comes to sword and sorcery, because many sword and sorcery writers are also keen Lovecraft fans because of his depictions of vile and unspeakable creatures. Then, when they write their tales, a little bit of Lovecraft spills out in their writing style, and the results are cracking sword and sorcery novels that I can’t get enough of.

Conclusion

This post is just an introduction to the links between cosmic horror and sword and sorcery, and I’d encourage you to go out and do a little research of your own. What at first glance might seem like a tenuous link quickly becomes something bigger, and once you scratch the surface you realise you’re looking down at a mountain.

In fact, you could easily write a full dissertation on the topics that we’ve covered today, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I found that somebody, somewhere, already has. But in the meantime, hopefully this post has helped to act as an introduction and you’ve learned something new today that you didn’t know already.

No genre lives in isolation, and sword and sorcery is no different. It’s inspired by everything from cosmic horror through to old Greek legends, but I find that Lovecraft’s influence in particular can be felt, particularly in the sword and sorcery movies of the 80s.

Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard were contemporaries, and so while it was Howard who essentially defined the genre of sword and sorcery, we shouldn’t be surprised that a certain Lovecraftian vibe has slipped in too. And perhaps now you’ll start to notice some more of the similarities. Happy reading!

Article Written by Dane Cobain for Epiphany Entertainment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright ©Epiphany Entertainment 2020

Hearth

The Statue In Mammoth Short Beyond the Black Sea Fiction

Ivar didn’t know the woman. Her wry smile and flashing eyes, curly black hair spoke of a Stygian or Canaanite. She had bronze skin; her dark lips maybe had a Pictish origin. “Ummm Ten silver ingots no more Cimmerian she coughed. The guttural sound was odd and didn’t at all match her features of the language of Canaan. Ivar, a simple man from north east of the Black Sea, was standing at least a foot above her, holding the tusk of a mammoth in his brawny hands. His short black hair, ice blue eyes clean shaven face and smooth tanned skin gave away his origins all too plainly. Clearly she meant to cheat him, ivory of this quality hacked from the living skull of a Mammoth was worth far more than ten silver ingots. “I can make this into a fine carved idol of your god Baal for you, or a statue or some other precious item. I know that this is worth ten times the amount you say woman. Give me a fair price I wish to drink and eat.”

“You foolish brute, I would not think a Northman such as yourself would be capable of carving anything. You don’t even have cloths. But, should you carve this for me and attend to some other vices of mine. I will give you 500 ingots of silver.” Her brown eyes flashed and she licked her lips tussled her hair trying to distract the Cimmerian. “My name is Lilania and I hold power in this city, the next time you call me woman I will cut out your tongue.”

Lilania lead the Cimmerian away through narrow alleys until she arrived at a large mud brick building with white lime wash, and a parapet with a ladder made of sturdy timber fixed to the wall. She quickly climbed the ladder her yellow and red chiton hitched up to the side exposing her thighs and calves. Her top was yellow with red geometric designs and around her neck she wore the symbol of Baal Alaakum the god of the city, two gold disks with a crescent above. The Cimmerian climbed, his loin cloth made of fur and his bundle of skins slung across his back. The crystal dagger in his girdle and large two edge sword made of hardened bronze on his back. He mounted the top of the parapet and saw the woman opening a trap door in the flat roof. “Thieves abound in this city, especially trying to rob me of my trade goods.” Welcome to my home and place of business.

The room was large at least ten paces across. The floor was covered with fine carpets made of wool or flax the Cimmerian could not tell. A fire burned in a spherical hearth made of bronze. All around were metal items, bronze mirrors, silver goblets, copper ingots stacked high in a crate. A bubbling weird black iron cauldron hissed and popped. Her slaves were here too a small Canaanite woman with short cut brown hair and green eyes worked some form loom, a beautiful Galli woman with long braided light brown hair and blue eyes was skilfully painting a vase in swirls, circles and braids of her homeland far to the west, a large black skinned Dogon man, his tribal marking and proud features marked him as a warrior of ten years, he was a long way from the Barbary and was probably the bodyguard of the merchant. The wealth of the merchant was staggering.

Gold and gems adorned the alter of Baal. So much metal the Cimmerians eyes widened at the site of it. “Come Cimmerian I will show you my workshop”

Lilania lead Ivar through to another adjoining smaller room in this room the roof was more open, he could see the sky. A granite forge with bronze tools was arrayed before him, along with many other benches and work-spaces. The woman grabbed wet clay and skilfully fashioned a statue of Baal. Carefully etching in the geometric magical symbols, the priests revered. She carefully and patently showed the Cimmerian every aspect of the statue he was to carve.

“See Cimmerian, like this the symbols must be perfect.” She coughed.

“I understand Lilania, I will carve the idol for you”

Ivar began his work the next day after eating a meal of dried fish, bread and an apple prepared by the young Canaanite slave girl Leeta. He began clearing his work area and selecting tools, so many good fine bronze tools for him to work with. He took his time examining the dry statue and began to find the form within the mammoth tusk.

Ivar had been working for a week now, the statue was lifelike, taking the form of Baal. Lilania had been pleased and been more friendly with Ivar. The Cimmerian learned that she had a Pictish mother and father of mixed blood who had lived for a long time. She herself was over one hundred years old and looked barely thirty. She knew sorcerer and numbers and that was her main trade, as a seer and necromancer she had learned Stygian secrets. He found a charm in her raspy husky voice. The Cimmerian enjoyed the company of the slave girl from Gaul. Her culture had many similarities with his own, but she was far more artful and skilled in painting and drawing. A few times she had helped him with the carving outlining the runes for him. He learned some of the local languages quickly, in the house they mostly spoke Canaanite, but used a few Pictish, Gaelic and Stygian words.

The next week was the slow finishing of the statue, rubies, silver gold and orichalcum were added carefully as inlays. The idol took on a life of its own now, the artwork impersonating the god. Ivar was please and showed Lilania, she viewed it shrewdly carefully examining it and squinting her eyes.

“This is good, who would think a barbarian from the wilds could handle tools with such skill and make such an item as this.” Lilania then took the idol wrapped it up, produced a pouch of some silver ingots. Now, lets see how you fight. I suspect the guards of the merchant that I will sell this too will try to take it. He is a dirty Sygian from far away. If I give this motion, she placed her hand on her forehead you and Enlu will attack his guards. “Do you understand Cimmerian?” she coughed “I understand, my name is Ivar and you know that witch.” His muscled had tensed at the insult, and then she saw that she was playing again, which she did with all the people she met. “I will deal with the merchant” she said, and the servants and his house will be mine. But maybe he will pay the price I asked and we will not need to use your Barbarian skills.

The dust had been kicked up the wind as they walked down the street, the Cimmerian noticed that many of the people of the town shut their doors as the woman walked towards them. They obviously were afraid of the sorcerer. Ivar had seen no evidence of magic or sorcery except the many idles and items she carried. The statue was wrapped in a fine red cloth, of exception weave.

The house they approached was similar to her other houses didn’t have holes in the roof, what made these ones different. As if to answer his question, Lilania explained “Long ago, the town was Pictish and this was the method of construction, we had no laws to govern our behaviour, my fathers father came her and taught them how to forge bronze. The town grew up around us, the house we are going to is another ancient, he came from the east some thousand years ago. The Picts he lived with are all dead, but his descendants remain. He comes from Lemuria, and you will see why he may betray us soon enough. Don’t be afraid Cimmerian, there are far worse than he in this world.”

All three of them climbed the ladder quickly, Lilania kicked the trap door pounding on it with her boot. Ivar saw that she had a obsidian dagger in her belt carved in strange Stygian symbols. Enlu had a two short stone bronze spear and a shield of cow hide and wood on his back. The trap door was opened and they descended into the house, this one had walls covered in crude paintings of aurochs, horses and crocodiles. A fire was burning in a stone hearth. The merchant had five Pictish warriors, their stone spears and hides covered their small broad frames. The Lemurian was strange his yellow skin and long blonde hair and red eyes and tall conical elongated skull gave him a grim appearance. His delicate frame was almost insect like in its movements. He stooped, towering over the Picts though his bones appeared far more delicate, a human of a bygone age. The Cimmerian wondered what things he had seen in his long life, and if he knew that he would meet his fate at the hands of the Canaanite witch. 

“Lilania, I see you have a new guard with you. Did you bring me what I asked for this time, or cheep trinkets?” The Lemurians serpentine tone and soothing voice showed confidence in his position, a mistake because the Cimmerian had already planned to kill the first two Picts, as soon as the signal was given. He was already inching his way subtly forward to swords reach. The sword was on his hip this time.

Lilania revealed the statue, and the Lemurian shrewdly reviewed it, she turned it over in her hands rolling her fingers across it.

“Lilania you have outdone yourself this time, this looks like it may match my specifications however. I must see if it is accepted into the ritual you understand of course.”

She gave a little nod of head, and handed him the statue which he then placed on an alter which had a cloth of a red gold metal. The Cimmerian had never seen such a wonder, how could you make a weave from metal?

He lifted up a strange green bag and affixed a bracelet to his wrist. He spoke magical words and viewed the bracelet light flighted on the bracelet in many colours. A strange voice came out of the bracelet speaking a weird language.

“We have an agreement; the navigator agrees it will serve my purpose. I shall give you 1 ton of black earth from my farms, and the seeds of the future. Plant them and feed the people of Canaan for 10,000 years.”

“We have an agreement Shu, let us drink wine and eat the flesh of birds.”

The two sorcerers drank wine from strange goblets. The Barbarian could see through the walls of the goblet to the liquid within. Never had he seen such a thing. What wonders did these sorcerers have, the strange devices and knowledge.

He had travelled far in all his days, seen the great city of Zar’Grim, Sailed the Aegean, learned of the existence of many metals including the ancient Atlantean metals of Steel and Orichalcum, but the wonders in that ancient Pictish room he dreamed of for many days.

 

Conan Poster Crop

The Sword and Sorcery Movies You Have to See

Okay, okay, I admit it – I’m a sword and sorcery nerd. I can’t help it. I was raised on a steady diet of Dungeons and Dragons, pulp sword and sorcery novels and old school 80s movies about muscle-bound heroes tracking down evil wizards.

Sure, it can be a little cliché from time to time, and the special effects on some of those older movies haven’t aged so well, but that’s where a lot of the charm comes from. As long as you don’t go in expecting a 2020 Hollywood blockbuster from a movie that’s potentially as old or older than you are, you should be fine.

I love sword and sorcery, but I’d forgotten just how much I loved it until I started re-watching all of my old favourites to write this article. As with most genres, as long as you go in with the right expectations, there’s a lot to love. You wouldn’t go into a western expecting serious questions about life and philosophy, and the same holds true with sword and sorcery. If you do get it, it’s an added bonus.

And so without further ado, let’s dive on in and take a look at just a few of the sword and sorcery movies that you’ll want to check out.

The Sword and Sorcery Movies You Have to See

1.      Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

This epic movie is arguably the fore-runner of sword and sorcery despite not technically being an example of the genre. Still, it’s a stunning take on Greek mythology and offers up everything from hydras and giant metal gods to the iconic stop-motion skeletons that pursue Jason’s crew towards the end of the movie. It still holds up nearly 60 years on and there’s a reason why it’s often cited as one of the greatest movies ever made.

2.      Hawk the Slayer (1980)

For some reason, when I think of sword and sorcery, I think of America. This one bucks the trend though, because the project was helmed by a British director. It follows the intertwined stories of two brothers who find themselves pitted against one another in a pretty standard sword and sorcery tale of revenge, betrayal and, of course, a magical sword.

3.      Excalibur (1981)

This American epic has managed to stand the test of time for nearly forty years and still remains a firm fan favourite, which is impressive considering it tackles the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which have been done to death. Plenty of other, similar movies have been made since then, but Excalibur is the closest to true sword and sorcery and it’s also responsible for launching the careers of Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne and Ciaran Hinds, amongst others.

4.      Conan the Barbarian (1982)

You can’t really talk about sword and sorcery movies without mentioning Conan the Barbarian, because as well as helping to establish Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Hollywood celebrity, it also singlehandedly ushered in the science fiction boom of the 1980s. Created by Robert E. Howard, Conan is arguably the most well-known and influential sword and sorcery character of all time, the benchmark that other characters are measured against.

5.      The Beastmaster (1982)

I grew up on this movie and so perhaps I’m a little biased because of its sentimental value. I also haven’t heard anyone else ever talk about it, which is a shame because it’s a cracker. Marc Singer plays a muscle-bound warrior called Dar who can communicate with animals – and who can also kick some butt when he’s wielding his sword. Also starring a fresh-faced Rip Torn who plays antagonist high priest Maax, it wasn’t a commercial success but gained a lot of notoriety after repeats on network and cable television.

6.      The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)

This one’s a classic and so the chances are that you’ve already seen it. Still, if you’ve missed this tale of a mercenary with a unique sword rediscovering his destiny, it’s not too late to make up for it and to see what the fuss is about. It’s probably the closest we’ve come on this list to pure, unadulterated sword and sorcery.

7.      Deathstalker (1983)

This movie is another strange one because it was produced in a sort of Pan-American partnership between Americans and Argentinians. That’s why you might have heard of this one under the title Cazador de Muerte. Whichever language you watch it in, you’re sure to enjoy the action sequences, and if you enjoy it you’re in luck because there are four other movies in the series.

8.      Conan the Destroyer (1984)

Basically everyone agrees that this movie was nowhere near as good as the first one, but I’m biased because it’s the first one that I saw and it reminds me of my childhood. Sure, there was more of a focus on the Hollywood side of things than on classic sword and sorcery, but it’s a Conan movie and so you also have no excuse to miss it. Even the 2011 remake is worth a watch, although it’s easily the worst of the lot.

9.      Red Sonja (1985)

You might be noticing a bit of a theme here. This Dutch-American sword and sorcery movie starred Brigitte Nielsen in the titular role as another of Robert E. Howard’s iconic creations. It takes place in the same fictitious universe as the Conan movies and featured Arnold Schwarzenegger in a supporting role, and while it might not have been as commercially or critically well-received, it’s still well worth a watch.

10.  Masters of the Universe (1987)

This is the movie version of the iconic TV show in which He-Man goes up against the evil Skeletor. At its heart, it’s sword and sorcery at its purest, although it’s better for the nostalgia value these days than it is as an actual standalone movie. It’s worth a watch just to see Dolph Lundgren kicking some butt, and the sword and sorcery elements are an added bonus.

11.  The Princess Bride (1987)

This cult movie, along with the William Goldman novel that inspired it, has proved to be impossible to categorise. It’s a romantic comedy, a straight up fantasy, an epic tale of adventure and, yes, “a sly parody of sword and sorcery movies” according to film critic Roger Ebert. If you’re a sword and sorcery purist then it might not be for you, but if you have a sense of humour then give it a shot. Plus there’s that epic swordfight between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black.

12.  Willow (1988)

Willow is often thought of as a straight up children’s fantasy movie, and it’s certainly true that there are elements of that. At the same time though, there’s plenty of sword fighting with a little magic sprinkled in, and it also cuts right to the heart of classic sword and sorcery with a storyline that follows an unlikely hero fighting against a tyrannical ruler. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a cult classic for a reason.

13.  Kull the Conqueror (1997)

This was originally supposed to be a third Conan movie, but Arnie didn’t fancy reprising his role and so the studio execs turned instead to another one of Robert E. Howard’s iconic characters. Honestly, there’s not a whole heap to say about this one and it could easily be forgotten, although it does star Kevin Sorbo, the actor who played Hercules, in his first big screen role.

14.  13th Warrior (1999)

Another one based on a novel?! This one was based on Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, which itself is a retelling of the legend of Beowulf. This one’s as close as you can get to classic sword and sorcery without just rewatching a Conan movie, so it’s definitely one to take a look at if you’ve missed it so far. It stars Omar Sharif and Antonio Banderas and has the dubious claim to fame of being one of the biggest box office flops in history, but I blame that on the marketing.

15.  Dungeons and Dragons (2000)

You can’t write a list like this without talking about this movie version of the iconic role playing game. This doesn’t do much to buck the trend of bad movies of video games and board games, but it’s far from the worst of them and it’s a notable entry into the sword and sorcery canon just by virtue of the name attached to it. Just don’t bother with the sequels.

16.  The Scorpion King (2002)

This movie’s a little unusual because despite it being a spin-off of the Mummy movies, it’s different in both tone and genre. Here, there’s a lot less humour and a lot more magic and mayhem, and you also get to see The Rock as a gigantic scorpion. It’s the kind of movie that’s best enjoyed for its spectacle and you might even enjoy it more if you keep your brain switched off, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

17.  Beowulf (2005)

This second retelling of Beowulf is probably my favourite of the two, mainly because it stars both Gerard Butler and Stellan Skarsgård, which virtually guarantees that it’ll be worth a watch. Produced in a joint effort between Canadians and Icelanders, it was filmed on location in Iceland, which gives it a truly epic feel that none of the other films in this list can compete with without the use of CGI.

18.  300 (2006)

Expect more swords than sorcery here and not a huge amount in the way of mythical creatures, but the battle scenes alone make this movie more than worth a watch. The epic tale of 300 Spartans taking on the might of the entire Persian army became an instant fan favourite as soon as it came out, and it also sparked a bunch of memes and cemented the phrase “this is Sparta!” in popular culture.

19.  Solomon Kane (2009)

This more modern instalment in the sword and sorcery canon got stuck in development hell, with filming starting eleven years after the rights were secured. Solomon Kane is another Robert E. Howard creation and so if you like Conan or Kull, you’ll like Solomon Kane. Planned as the first movie in a trilogy, this was a combined effort between French, Czech and British production companies. The main reason why this one is worth checking out is that it shows us what sword and sorcery can look like through a more modern lens.

20.  Black Death (2010)

Arguably more relevant now in the coronavirus era than it was when it was first released, this movie follows an outbreak of the bubonic plague in which there are reports that people are coming back to life. Starring Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean (no spoilers as to whether he dies or not here!), it’s got a bit of everything from sword and sorcery to historical fiction and flat-out horror. There’s something for everyone, though it’s not exactly family friendly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, these are just a few of my recommendations, and there are plenty more fantastic films out there for you to choose from. Use this list as a starting point and then build out from it, and start renting a few of the movies that have caught your eye in this post.

One of the beauties of today’s artificial intelligence era is that algorithms get better and better as they’re exposed to more and more data. In other words, a machine learning algorithm that recommends fantasy movies will quickly get better at recommending movies specifically for you than any human being could hope for.

That means that once you log into your streaming site of choice and start checking out some of the sword and sorcery movies that are on offer, they’ll be able to figure out what you like and what you don’t like and to make suggestions accordingly. They can also trawl through their archives to find obscure recommendations that you might have missed. 

But that doesn’t mean we mere humans can’t share recommendations and keep the discussion going, which is why I want to hear from you. Be sure to let me know in the comments what some of your sword and sorcery movies are. I can’t wait to get stuck in and to watch them.

First, though, I’m off to re-watch The Beastmaster.

Article Written by Dane Cobain for Epiphany Entertainment

Copyright ©Epiphany Entertainment 2020

Serpent Priest

Sword & Sorcery the link to Science Fiction

Science fiction and fantasy go hand-in-hand, to the point at which we often use the term SFF to refer to anything that has elements of either sci-fi or fantasy. In fact, before we go any further, we should probably take a quick look at what the two terms mean:

Science fiction is a type of exploratory fiction in which the emphasis is on exploring ideas that are made possible through the advancement of science. It often includes futuristic technologies or highly evolved versions of our own existing tech. Many people credit Mary Shelley with creating the science fiction genre by penning Frankenstein, and they have a point. At the very least, it’s a major influence.

Fantasy focusses more on magic, fantastic creatures, chosen ones and dark lords. If Frankenstein is the first sci-fi story, the first fantasy stories were the old legends that Greeks and Romans told around fireplaces. One of the easiest ways to tell whether a story is science fiction or fantasy is to look at what’s powering the world. If it’s magic, it’s fantasy, and if it’s technology, it’s science fiction. If it’s somewhere in between, it’s probably steampunk.

Steampunk is a type of hard science fiction which often taps into elements of Victorian England and the steam revolution. As opposed to traditional science fiction, steampunk is more grounded in older technology evolving down different paths, usually incorporating a certain level of historical fiction. It’s science fiction, but with a twist.

Perhaps the father of steampunk is Jules Verne, and indeed his forward-thinking science fiction novels are unlike anything else that was produced at the time. It’s possible that the reason that steampunk is so closely associated with Victorian society and steam power is that Verne was the pioneer and those were the times he was living in. It’s also fascinating to see that his work predated the arrival of more easily available global travel and submarines, amongst other things.

And then there’s sword and sorcery, which is a subset of fantasy which typically involves a rough-and-ready hero who’s skilled with a sword and who has some sort of personal journey to go on. In contrast to epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, where the fate of the whole realm hangs in the balance, sword and sorcery heroes are often pursuing personal vengeance or some other vendetta.

And so at first, it might seem as though there isn’t much that sci-fi and sword and sorcery have in common. But bear with me! As you’ll come to see from the rest of this article, the two genres have a surprising number of similarities, and while they’ve evolved separately, they’ve followed a surprisingly similar path.

For example, steampunk and sword and sorcery are unlikely cousins of a sort. Both have evolved as offshoots of their primary genres, and both tend to be more character and world-driven then epic in scope with big questions about life and existence.

Epic fantasy tends to focus on the battle between good and evil. Steampunk is more likely to be a though experiment, a big “what if?” that shows us what could have been. A sword and sorcery novel will probably follow a buff guy with a sword who’s out for revenge.

 

Getting Gritty With It

One thing that much science fiction and sword and sorcery have in common is that they display a similar level of grittiness. They’re very much grounded in realism, even when it seems as though they’re taking place somewhere alien to our own world.

For example, science fiction places a heavy emphasis on our own scientific progress. Even the most futuristic spaceships need to adhere to what we know about gravity and physics, unless the author can think of a decent workaround. In fact, what makes science fiction great is its plausibility, and this comes from the attention to detail and the integration of known scientific concepts.

Sword and sorcery doesn’t really have to worry about physics too much, but because of its inherent grittiness, there are other factors to consider. For example, fictional monsters need to be grounded in reality if they’re to seem believable, and if you’re describing a centaur as it runs and you haven’t done your research, you can bet that a keen horseman somewhere will spot it.

The same holds true during combat. The author needs to get every single thrust and parry just right, but they also need to have a working knowledge of tactics and first aid. If a hero’s wound becomes infected, we need to see the consequences as they struggle to deal with it. It might not always be pleasant to write or to read about, but it’s real.  

 

Space Operas and Fantasy

Let’s take a moment here to talk about space operas, the subcategory of science fiction that deals with more complex political themes and the relationships between characters just as much as it deals with science fiction itself.

Perhaps the most famous example of the space opera is Frank Herbert’s Dune, a novel which is still growing in influence all these years later. I actually have a tattoo that reads “Fear is the mind-killer”, a quote from the Fear litany. Dune has been a major inspiration on everything from Star Wars to George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and that alone is a great indication of the genre’s crossover appeal.

Sword and sorcery rarely has the same high politics, but it does still have the same focus on interpersonal relationships. In fact, our heroes can rarely go it alone, and they’ll typically have to rely on an ever-evolving cast of supporting characters, as well as their wits and diplomacy skills. The best sword and sorcery heroes often rely on their swords as a backup plan instead of immediately reaching for a blade as the solution to every situation.

If space operas are the science fiction equivalent of epic fantasy, steampunk is the science fiction equivalent or sword and sorcery. And there’s a good reason why the two of them evolved hand-in-hand: pulp.

 

Pulp

Pulp magazines were a phenomenon of the early 20th century that were the time period’s equivalent to blogs and fanzines. Typically printed in cheap paper (hence the name), pulp books and magazines were designed to be as widely available as possible, cutting down on production costs to pass those savings on to the reader.

Arguably the largest and most iconic pulp brand was the long-running magazine Weird Tales, which was the first to publish H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories. Lovecraft himself was occasionally known to blur the boundaries between fantasy and science fiction, although he can hardly be credited as a traditional sword and sorcery writer. The first issue of Weird Tales was published in early 1922 and the magazine has been published on and off ever since, depending upon various licensing agreements.

Our very own Robert E. Howard was also a regular contributor, and his Conan and Kull stories have been true icons within the genre. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance that Weird Tales has had within the development of both sword and sorcery and science fiction. It’s quite a remarkable achievement, considering that it’s believed that the magazine never exceeded a circulation of 50,000 copies.

For the purposes of this article, though, we’re interested in the way that Weird Tales and other publications of its ilk were able to act as a melting pot of influences. Where else would fantasy writers be exposed to important scientific concepts, and where else would science fiction be introduced to legends and mythology?

The popularity of pulp, which was more of an unconscious movement driven by necessity than anything else, is arguably the single biggest thing that cemented science fiction and fantasy together in the public consciousness. And if you think of literary genres as organisms which constantly evolve over time, the pulp publications were their habitats.

You could argue that without the convergence of sword and sorcery and science fiction, we wouldn’t have Star Wars. After all, Jedi knights are basically sword-wielding magicians with a little religion thrown in, and the alien life forms aren’t too dissimilar to fantasy creatures. True, most people would categorise it as a space opera as opposed to a sword and sorcery movie, but as we’ve seen, there’s often a lot of crossover.

 

Sci-Fi and Sword and Sorcery in the 21st Century

As for what’s next for both science fiction and sword and sorcery, it’s really anyone’s game. Arguably the biggest sci-fi success of the last few years has been The Martian, a novel by Andy Weir that was also turned into a successful Hollywood movie. As for sword and sorcery, it’s mostly gone underground, although elements of it have been repurposed and popularised by the more modern genre of grimdark fantasy.

This type of fantasy is characterised by darker, more brutally realistic writing, elements of which are most obvious in works like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and the TV show that was based upon it. The interesting thing about grimdark fantasy is that despite having many of the elements of sword and sorcery, it also borrows from epic fantasy and other genres. And that includes science fiction, which is a clear influence on many of the “hard” magic systems that grimdark fantasy taps into.

So both sword and sorcery and science fiction have bright futures ahead of them, although not necessarily in the way that we might think. It’s fascinating to look at where sword and sorcery came from and where it is today, but that gives us no guarantees of what we can expect tomorrow.

 

Conclusion

As you’ve seen from this article, science fiction and sword and sorcery have a lot in common, but they also have their differences. That’s a good thing, because it means that while both genres are evolving independently, they’re also evolving in parallel. One genre can learn from another, and it’s us – the readers – who benefit.

So if you’re a die-hard science fiction reader who’s always steered clear of sword and sorcery, or even if you’re a sword and sorcery fan who’s never tried sci-fi, perhaps it’s time to give it a shot. As you can see, there’s a lot of crossover between the two, but there are also a bunch of new and exciting stories because what works for one genre won’t necessarily work for the other.

Are you a sword and sorcery and/or science fiction fan? What do you think about the crossover between the two genres? Be sure to leave us a comment to let us know what you think!

Article Written by Dane Cobain for Epiphany Entertainment

Copyright ©Epiphany Entertainment 2020

Cover of Beyond the Black Sea

The Sword and Sorcery Genre

Sword and sorcery has been a mainstay of the fantasy genre since… well, pretty much forever. Part of the reason for that is that it lends itself so well to the common trends and tropes that fantasy readers are used to, and in many ways it cuts right to the heart of what makes fantasy so great in the first place.

But what exactly is sword and sorcery? Well, as a general rule, the term is used to refer to the sub-genre of fantasy in which physical combat and magic play a defining role in the story. If the main character is a club-wielding barbarian and he has a wily magician friend who’s skilled in the arts of battle magic, it’s a good sign that you’re reading sword and sorcery.

Of course, there are elements of this in other types of fantasy, from grimdark and high fantasy to YA and even science fiction/fantasy hybrids. The difference tends to be that with sword and sorcery, a much higher emphasis is placed on the battles and the magic as opposed to politics or wider questions of society and morality.

In some circles, even this isn’t enough of a definition, and there are plenty of works out there that blur the boundaries between sword and sorcery and other genres. That’s why in today’s article, we’ll be clearing up a little confusion around the genre of sword and sorcery while giving you a few pointers of where to look if you want to dip your sandaled toes into the genre.

 

The Origins of Sword and Sorcery

Ever since its early days, sword and sorcery has been characterised by its fast-paced action and its fantastic, mythological framework. It differs from epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings in that in sword and sorcery, we’re usually following the fate of an individual as opposed to the fate of the world. In the Conan books, we follow the Cimmerian as he tries to regain his throne. In the Lord of the Rings, we follow a fellowship as it attempts to save Middle Earth. There’s a big – and important – difference.

The genre itself evolved from a mixture of Greek and Roman legends and the tales of epic bravery told by many Victorian writers, such as The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas and even the Brigadier Gerard tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And both Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith were said to have been inspired by the Arabian Nights.

Its early origins go hand-in-hand with the history of pulp magazines, which were the historical equivalents of blogs and fanzines. Printed cheaply on low-quality paper, pulp magazines helped counterculture authors to buck the literary mainstream. This helped sword and sorcery to develop as a niche genre, and it also helped to establish the success of other trends like the weird fiction movement spearheaded by H. G. Wells.

One of the interesting things about sword and sorcery is how often its characters inhabit morally grey areas. This is important, because it makes them much more fully-rounded and believable than some goody-two-shoes protagonist who never puts a step wrong. It also makes them more realistic.

In The Worm Ouroboros, which is named after the Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail to represent infinity, E. R. Eddison’s flawed heroes echo the real-life figure of Alexander the Great, who wept when he realised that he had no more lands to conquer. Eddison investigates the nature of infinity by having the gods restore the heroes’ enemies so that they can endlessly fight the same war over and over again.

Beyond The Black Sea Art
This is an Artwork done for some of Beyond the Black Seas Saga covers.

Key Figures of Sword and Sorcery

You can’t talk about sword and sorcery without talking about Robard E. Howard. Howard is something of a tragic figure who committed suicide at the age of 30 and who experienced his greatest commercial success after his death. During his lifetime, most of his work was published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. His first published novel, A Gent from Bear Creek, came out the year after his death. His most famous characters are Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror.

Even the name “sword and sorcery” relates back to Howard, after authors Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock corresponded by letter in the pages of a science fiction fanzine to identify possible names for the genre of fantasy that Howard’s work characterises. This makes Howard’s work so archetypal that it doesn’t just fit into the genre – it helps to define it.

Another key figure is Gary Gygax, although he has a claim to fame that goes above and beyond his (actually not too bad) sword and sorcery novels. Gygax is the creator of Dungeons and Dragons, the iconic role-playing game, and there’s an argument to be made that most D&D campaigns can be classed as sword and sorcery too, as far as a game can have its genre compared to a style of literature.

Dungeons and Dragons gave birth to its own expanded universe called Forgotten Realms in which a number of interlinked stories are all set in the same world. If you ever played the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale video games, you’ve experienced the Forgotten Realms. One of the most well-known Forgotten Realms authors is R. A. Salvatore, and indeed he made his name with it before going on to achieve critical acclaim in his own right.

The genre has even been parodied, perhaps most notably by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series with Cohen the Barbarian. Pratchett took the idea of these muscle-bound, thick-skulled warriors and asked the question of what would happen when they started to get older. The result? A stereotypical sword and sorcery hero, except he’s also an old-age pensioner who likes his home comforts.

And we’ve still only scratched the surface! Other key sword and sorcery authors include:

  • L. Moore
  • Charles Saunders
  • Clark Ashton Smith
  • Darrell Schweitzer
  • R. Eddison
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Fritz Leiber
  • Gardner Fox
  • Gary Gygax
  • Gene Wolfe
  • Joe Abercrombie
  • Karl Edward Wagner
  • Sprague de Camp
  • Leigh Brackett
  • Michael Moorcock
  • A. Salvatore
  • Robert E. Howard
  • Robert Lynn Asprin
  • Samuel R. Delany
  • Scott Lynch
  • Stephen R. Donaldson
  • Steven Erikson
  • Tanith Lee
  • Terry Pratchett (sort of but not really, though he’s heavily influenced by it)

You’ll notice that several of these authors are also known for writing science fiction, as well as other genres. Science fiction and fantasy go hand-in-hand, and we’ll be taking a closer look at how science fiction has influenced sword and sorcery in a future article.

Sword and Sorcery’s Impact on Popular Culture

Despite being seen by many as a cult genre, sword and sorcery has had a huge impact on the field of literature and indeed on popular culture as a whole. It’s gone from being a niche interest for geeks and nerds to being something that the mainstream can laugh and joke about. You just have to look at the recent (ish) Conan remake to see that there’s a demand for it.

It’s also interesting to see how the genre has evolved over time to reflect wider societal concerns. Sure, there’s the stereotype of the buxom female protagonist who’s scantily clad in battle armour, but there are also some truly thoughtful takes on feminist sword and sorcery. Girls can kick butt in battle too, and there’s also a rising generation of female sword and sorcery authors who are boosting the genre today like Ursula Le Guin did for feminist science fiction back in the 70s.

The genre has even led to several spinoff genres, most notably Chinese wuxia. Meaning “martial heroes” in English, Wuxia is sword and sorcery mixed with martial arts, like if Conan was a kickboxer. The genre has taken on such popularity that it’s spread throughout the world amongst Chinese-speakers, and now there are even wuxia inspired video games. What’s interesting is that the protagonists are often called “swordsmen” even if they don’t actually wield a sword.

Unfortunately, there’s also a risk that sword and sorcery will become a self-parody. During the boom of the eighties, novelists and film-makers rushed to the genre in the hope of attaining commercial success. Unfortunately, not everything to come out of this period was worth reading – or watching. Because of that, sword and sorcery fell out of favour again.

The challenge for modern writers has been to work against the clichés and the public perception and to breathe fresh air into the genre. Fortunately for us, the readers, there’s a new breed of sword and sorcery writers as well as revised interest from across the board. There might not be many people out there who only write sword and sorcery, but there are plenty who dabble with it alongside other genres.

With that said, there are few modern authors who work exclusively with sword and sorcery. Instead, today’s fantasy writers are like chefs who mix different ingredients together to create new dishes. Sword and sorcery is a spice and just like any spice, it can form the basis of a dish but it can also be overused.

Which brings us to the present day, where sword and sorcery has evolved and been incorporated into so-called “grimdark” fantasy, of which George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is arguably the best example. Grimdark fantasy mixes sword and sorcery aspects with elements of high and epic fantasy to create something “darker” and “grimmer”.

This is sword and sorcery growing up. The end of the boom of the eighties was marked by sword and sorcery dumbing down and being repackaged into kids TV shows and cartoons. Its resurgence in the new millennium is accompanying a shift towards darker, more grown-up sword and sorcery. The genre has finally come of age.

 

 

What’s Next for Sword and Sorcery?

Some SFF pundits think that sword and sorcery is dead, or at the very least that it’s no longer relevant. These are the same people who use the term in a derogatory manner, as if to suggest that their taste in literary genres is somehow objectively better than everyone else’s.

This elitist approach isn’t good for anyone, but it’s also a shame because it can put readers off the genre before they even get a chance to explore it. Come to think of it, half of the critics haven’t explored it either, or at the very least they haven’t read a sword and sorcery novel that was published in the last ten years.

With that said, it’s certainly true that sword and sorcery witnessed a decline in the 1990s and 2000s after the hype and the heights of the 80s, which were helped out by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan films. Arnie also starred opposite Brigitte Nielsen in Red Sonja, another movie based upon a Robert E. Howard character.

But the genre has been experiencing another resurgence in recent years, perhaps partly because of the success of Game of Thrones. True, neither George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series nor the TV show that was based upon it can be classified as sword and sorcery, but fantasy is an ecosystem and if one subgenre does well, they normally all do.

There are also plenty of talented contemporary authors who are working to push the genre to new heights, whether that’s by experimenting by mixing it with new genres or whether they’re creating new stories that will endure for generations to come. People have been forecasting the death of science fiction and fantasy for as long as they’ve been popular, and they haven’t been right so far.

For our part, we think sword and sorcery will continue to be at least as popular in the years to come as it is today, if only because we live in trying times and people are looking for a distraction. In a world in which we’re under attack by pandemics that we can’t see and where nine different countries have access to nuclear weapons, it’s weirdly reassuring to read about a guy with a sword fighting a bad-tempered giant.

The future of sword and sorcery is looking bright indeed. Now, who’s ready to head off on an adventure?

Cover art of the Lost World Saga, an Ophidians Doom
Cover for the Lost World, the first Saga for Beyond the Black Sea

Article Written by Dane Cobain for Epiphany Entertainment

Copyright ©Epiphany Entertainment 2020