I’m just going to say it right up front: Brian Murphy’s book FLAME AND CRIMSON: A HISTORY OF SWORD-AND-SORCERY from Pulp Hero Press is quite possibly the most comprehensive and important critical work of scholarship concerning the sword and sorcery genre of the last thirty years, perhaps even fifty years.
Michael Moorcock’s WIZARDRY AND WILD ROMANCE comes close, but Moorcock deals with more than just sword and sorcery, offering insights into broader subgenres of fantasy literature. Mark Finn’s BLOOD AND THUNDER: THE LIFE AND ART OF ROBERT E. HOWARD is masterful, especially at correcting some misrepresentations of Howard, but its focus is almost entirely upon Howard. FLAME AND CRIMSON sticks to the subject of sword and sorcery, and it keeps that focus throughout.
One of the elements I truly loved about this book was that Murphy didn’t pull any punches but remained almost entirely free of offering his own interpretations. He doesn’t hesitate to bring up the various disagreements and minor scandals that have sometimes loomed over sword and sorcery during the last century, and he hasn’t shied away from the negative criticism of the genre. While he obviously has his opinions about particular works and subjects, he always remains fair and doesn’t allow his own bias to intrude, often offering opinions from all the various sides in any possible debate.
After the book’s introduction, the first chapter attempts to answer the bold question, “What is Sword-and-Sorcery?” Instead of offering a simplistic, one-sentence dictionary response, Murphy spends time breaking down the various elements which make a tale truly of the sword and sorcery subgenre. Action, personal motivations, dark magic, outsiders as protagonists, the influence of history and horror (especially H.P. Lovecraft), all these come together to form the true sword and sorcery tale according to Murphy, and there’s little I can argue with him about.
From there FLAME AND CRIMSON goes into a chapter concerning early origins of the genre, from ancient sagas to the influences of such authors as Lord Dunsany and Alexandre Dumas. Then readers are taken into the true heart of the birth of sword and sorcery as a chapter is allocated to Robert E. Howard, the creator of the genre.
Interestingly, and appropriately for a work of less than 250 pages, Howard is the only author to receive a chapter unto himself. Also, I have to admit, I’ve read numerous books about Howard over the decades, I’ve even made the pilgrimage to Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, but in one chapter FLAME AND CRIMSON opened my eyes to elements concerning Two-Gun Bob that I’d never considered before. To tell the truth, Howard has always mystified me and I’ve never quite been able to put my finger upon his personality as a writer, but this book changed that for me. I had always wondered why Howard had become a writer, what drove him to do so, and I finally have my answer. Freedom. Freedom not only financially, but mentally and emotionally and in some ways even physically from the world Howard found himself in, from the world at large. That’s a motivation I can fully understand.
Next up we are treated to a chapter concerning the early rise of WEIRD TALES magazine and sword and sorcery writers who were contemporaries to Howard. No little space is utilized to cover the likes of C.L. Moore, Clark Ashton Smith, and Henry Kuttner, along with a few other, mostly lesser-known writers who worked in the genre in its youngest days. Following an obvious historical timeline, FLAME AND CRIMSON briefly goes into a period when sword and sorcery was not as popular as it had been, mainly the 1940s and 1950s, but then readers are pulled into the 1960s and 1970s when sword and sorcery entered its second, and perhaps most expansive, heyday.
With the rise of such authors as Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, plus the re-release of much of Howard’s works in book form, the 1960s spurred a revival in sword and sorcery that would last roughly two decades. Other subgenres of fantasy would compete with sword and sorcery for the reading market, but sword and sorcery held its own for quite a while. Broadly speaking, fantasy in general and sword and sorcery in particular were branching out to the larger culture, influencing not only literature but music and society at large. Besides Leiber and Moorcock, other important authors of this period were Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, and Karl Edward Wagner.
Then we come to the 1980s, and things begin to wane for sword and sorcery. The genre falls out of fashion with readers, with FLAME AND CRIMSON suspecting that one big reason being sword and sorcery had become glutted with lesser works by lesser writers, publishers having spent much of the ’70s trying to cash in on the popularity of fantasy, thus being more willing to publish just about anything and anyone. I’m old enough to remember those periods, and I have to say Murphy makes a strong case. Unfortunately despite the fact some of the old guard of the ’60s and ’70s were still producing material and a handful of newer authors (Glenn Cook, George R.R. Martin, etc.) were putting out similar work, sword and sorcery faced a stiff decline in the era of Reagan.
Yet sword and sorcery was not completely dead. As FLAME AND CRIMSON goes into, the genre might have fallen from its heights but it continues to have a major influence upon the world. Concerning fantasy, modern heroic fiction and the grimdark subgenre have much in common with sword and sorcery, and the influence of sword and sorcery is apparent. From movies to music to tabletop roleplaying games and even video games, sword and sorcery is standing strong if not center stage. More than this, sword and sorcery is very much still alive in literature, with authors like James Enge and Howard Andrew Jones keeping the flames burning along with publishers such as DMR Books and Rogue Blades (yah! we got mentioned!).
Finally, as FLAME AND CRIMSON winds down, its final chapter attempts to answer the question, “Why Sword-and-Sorcery?” I won’t give away Murphy’s conclusions because I don’t want to spoil everything for potential readers, but I can say, “Well, why not?” And I mean that with a genuine smile.
If you are a fan of sword and sorcery, or of one of the writers in the subgenre or of broader fantasy literature, do yourself a service and read this book. I’ve only covered the bare basics here, sort of an outline of the book’s structure, but there is much more to be discovered. There are gems of history and literary criticism to be found within the pages of FLAME AND CRIMSON.
Brian Murphy has not only done fans of sword and sorcery proud, but he has opened doors to further study of the genre. He has shown that sword and sorcery is capable of far more than what the genre is often accused. Yes, relatively mundane tales of barbarians swinging axes and setting the world right can be fun reading, but sword and sorcery in the hands of skilled writers can be so much more than that. Sword and sorcery can delve into the underlying heart of the real world, can study the rise and fall and good and bad and ugly of civilization and humanity. Considering the oft-seeming trudge-filled and even dark world in which we regularly find ourselves, sword and sorcery can be a rallying cry against more than mere boredom, but can rage against disenchantment.
If you need further evidence of all sword and sorcery can do, then I suggest looking no further than the cover of FLAME AND CRIMSON and the fantastic artwork by artist Tom Barber. That image of a helmed skeleton lifting shield and sword not only hearkens back to the days of wild adventure, it speaks to the present and the future. It reminds us of the dark world each of us must face, but I’d like to point out there’s a pile of treasure behind that skeleton. We can gain the treasure, but we have to be willing enough and bold enough to reach for it, to fight for it. That is sword and sorcery at heart.