Posts Tagged ‘Clark Ashton Smith’

Why I fell for Exalted

As I prepare for some exciting Vampire-related content, as well as new Raven: Swordsmistress of Chaos, I thought I’d talk about some of my current gaming.

Right now, I’m preparing an Exalted game for three of my players. I’m looking forward to it, since Exalted is a very different kind of fantasy from what I usually run or play, yet shares the pulp fantasy roots I draw from so often.

In going back to the first edition core book, I’m reminded of why I fell in love with the game in the first place. There’s a lot to love in that book, but I remember the first thing that jumped out at me — maybe the first thing I even read.

From page 204:

SPEED THE WHEELS

Through the use of this Charm, a character can cause a bureaucracy to accomplish a task in record time. An Exalted using Speed the Wheels causes the bureaucracy to work (her Essence + 1) times faster for the duration of a particular job. For example, a character with Essence 3 who uses the Speed the Wheels Charm to expedite an appeal tothe ruler of a city to use the naval dry-docks to repair her ship would be able to make the appropriate appointments and cause the proper papers to be read four times faster than normal. Note that this Charm simply speeds the process, it does not increase the character’s chances of success. Characters who wish to improve their chances of success should use Social Charms or Deft Official’s Way.

I was blown away. I had the general idea that Exalted were demigods who practiced a sort of all-powerful, glowing kung fu, but no one had told me that they had literal martial arts for cutting through metaphorical red tape. The whole idea of a secret art for every skill was tremendously cool, and it made me immediately want to play an Eclipse negotiator.

That’s the second thing that made me want to play Exalted. The Eclipse caste. Loosely equivalent to D&D’s bards, they were supernaturally proficient ambassadors, able to seal bargains in the name of the Sun. I’ve long held that the coolest moment in any Star Wars novel was in Heir to the Empire, when Luke discovers that, as a Jedi, people automatically look to him to resolve disputes. That’s what I had here — Solar Exalted were sword and sorcery Jedi, and actually had the powers to back that up.

Just like that, Exalted became the first fantasy game where my first character concept wasn’t a rogue.

Then I flipped back to the beginning and read the traditional White Wolf fiction. And I learned about Chiaroscuro. A city where the living live alongside the hungry dead, the boundary maintained only by lines of precious salt. For me, that evoked Zothique in all the best ways.

A world of incredible marvels alongside an incredible sense of loss and sadness, where titanic heroes were empowered for their potential to make a difference.

That sealed it. I had to play this game.

And that’s how I fell in love with Exalted, and why I’m running it now.

Slim White Arms: Female Archetypes in Early Sword and Sorcery

Original Weird Tales cover for Red Nails

A Witch menaces a Heroine on the original cover for Howard's "Red Nails."

In the early era of sword and sorcery — that is, the era when Conan was being published but long before he became an icon — female sexual agency is rare, and female plot agency is rarer. Studying C.L. Moore, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and the early stories of Fritz Leiber, I see five major archetypes for female characters.

Most of the analysis I see of sword and sorcery fiction, especially with regards to female characters, assumes a defensive posture. “I like this so I’m going to say why it’s okay.” By contrast, I’ll admit to being entirely uncomfortable with the portrayal of women in early sword tales.

I’m not going to conceal my biases, but I think I’ve said what I need to already. I also don’t have a particular thesis this time around; I’m simply assessing what’s there.

The strongest focus here is on Howard’s Conan stories, with the others used to illuminate what I find there. Were I, for instance, to analyze Leiber’s career, or even just those of his two famous rogues, this list would look very different. (Also note that the Leiber story treated here, “Adept’s Gambit,” was written within a decade after the other works, but not published until 1949.)

Property

The most common role for women is as property. Often, this involves the woman being treated as property cruelly by one man, and then crudely but well by the hero. (“Iron Shadows on the Moon,” “The People of the Black Circle”). In this capacity, the woman has little agency; she is, by default, the sexual partner of whatever man currently possesses her. One of the best examples is “The Servants of Bit-Yakim,” in which Muriela changes hands with little ado, and is later valued directly against a cache of jewels.

Jirel fights to avoid becoming property in “Black God’s Kiss.”

Most of Clark Ashton Smith’s female characters fall within the property archetype, although a few surprise the male characters by displaying agency of one kind or another.

As property, a woman may possess sexual allure, but rarely posseses sexual agency. She’s also more a plot device than a character with plot agency.

Mystery

The mysterious woman is essentially a transitional archetype. A woman begins as a mysterious character, during which time she’s sexually off-limits (although possibly quite alluring). So it is when Yasmela first appears in “Black Colossus,” and with Ahura in “Adept’s Gambit.” Muriela occupies this role for about five minutes in “The Servants of Bit-Yakim.” One of my personal favorite mysterious women is Clark Ashton Smith’s eponymous “Morthylla.”

The mysterious woman is a well-established trope in other genres, but only occasionally seems to appear in sword and sorcery. She’s most frequently found in Leiber, who was fond of the idea of women as alien to men. (See also “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” and “Conjure Wife.”) Leiber’s alien woman is arguably an archetype all her own, but going down that road involves abandoning the discussion of sword and sorcery as a whole.

Authority

The Conan stories, as well as Jirel’s saga, have a number of examples of women who wield authority, and wield it effectively. Few of them, however, really want to.

There’s the Devi Yasmina, for instance, the most capable female leader in Conan’s saga. “The People of the Black Circle” presents her as a clever diplomat and brave as any of the male supporting cast in the face of uncanny horror. She’s also at least a passable military commander, rallying her troops to the aid of Conan the chieftain. But she has no true desire to rule; rather, it’s an unpleasant task forced upon her by the assassination of her brother. Yasmina is largely an object rather than an agent in the plot — woman as property — but has a fair amount of sexual agency. She essentially negotiates with Conan whether or not they will have an affair, and on whose terms.

Yasmela of “Black Colossus” is another capable female leader, but again, she leads only because she lacks a brother. (Hers being tucked away in a dungeon.) Yasmela has plenty of plot agency early in the story, and sexual agency at its end. She’s probably the only female character in Conan’s history to persuade him to have sex in direct contradiction to his initial inclination.

In “A Witch Shall Be Born,” Taramis rules without any missing male authority. She’s also presented as a just and beloved ruler, whom a number of men not interested in her sexually willingly follow. She’s perhaps the standout female authority of the Conan stories. Of course, the contrast between her and her sister, Salome, is perhaps the only outright “madonna/whore” juxtaposition in Howard’s work.

Belit, the “Queen of the Black Coast,” is a strong authority figure. Strong enough, in fact, that Conan is content to follow her leadership and play the role of consort. Ultimately, however, she’s also an overreaching authority figure, a Pandora or Ahab who leads her men to death. Notably, Belit seems to have been forced into her role of authority because her male relatives were deprived of theirs.

And then there’s Jirel of Joiry, her own little special case. She’s the military commander of Joiry, and her men are extremely loyal. Little attention, however, is given to the nature of her rulership or how she got there. She simply is, and is unquestioned.

Most of these characters possess some sexual agency of their own, often with the ability to choose and even compel lovers. Their plot agency is also strong. Many of them set significant events into motion for their own reasons.

Witch

The witch is primarily an antagonistic figure, with some crossover with the mysterious woman. Examples include Salome (“A Witch Shall be Born”), Akivasha (The Hour of the Dragon), Ahura when possessed (“Adept’s Gambit”) and the parallel figures of Thalis (“The Slithering Shadow”) and Tascela (“Red Nails”). These characters possess some measure of power over the hero’s survival, and are usually depicted with sexual freedom. Their plot agency is variable but tends to be significant.

The mightiest of these is Jirel’s foe Jarisme (“Jirel Meets Magic”), queen of her own otherworld. Jarisme presents one magic obstacle after another for Jirel to overcome. She’s the perfect impediment to meet Jirel’s plot-driving fierceness. Indeed, her only role in Jirel’s life is as an obstacle. Jirel battles and kills Jarisme while seeking to murder another wizard entirely.

There’s a ton to be written on this topic, but I’m not inclined to at the moment. I’ll note that later creators refine this archetype into the mighty Sorceress, from which figures like Zorayas (Night’s Master) spring. It’s also worth noting that I’ve seen the witch called the “temptress,” but it’s a misleading label. In the works I’m discussing, there’s little to no temptation of the hero, however much a character like Thalis might wish it.

There’s also the literal witch Zeiata (The Hour of the Dragon), who’s notable for being one of the few old women present in the Conan saga.

Heroine

Jirel is the only starring heroine I’ve read from the original Weird Tales era. She possesses most of Conan’s personality traits, save for his ambition. She has some sexual agency, in the sense that she actively denies men who want to compel her to be their lover. She also has a lot of plot agency. Her fierce determination drives her stories more than anything.

Jirel, however, must repeatedly fight to avoid being property, sexually or otherwise. Most of the Jirel stories feature a sequence which revolves around her imprisonment by either force or sorcery. She achieves freedom through her own fierce nature, usually when her considerable physical prowess has been neutralized. Fighting to achieve freedom is the most consistent theme in Jirel’s stories, and usually is what propels the narrative forward. In that sense, she’s made of plot agency.

Belit qualifies, however narrowly, for the heroine archetype. We’re told she’s a fierce warrior; we just don’t see most of it. Her plot agency as a heroine is somewhat less than her agency as an authority figure, but the two are appropriately difficult to untangle.

Valeria of “Red Nails” is an excellent heroine, supporting character though she is. She has the freedom to choose lovers and deals harshly with those who try to take it away from her. Her plot agency is pretty strong; she takes almost as active a role as a fighter and explorer as Conan does, and her backstory implies that she’s accomplished much more.

The ability of these heroines to make their own sexual decisions puts them in interesting contrast to their descendants. The most notable of those, of course, is Roy Thomas’s Red Sonja. Sonja’s made of headstrong plot agency and sword-borne death, much like Jirel. However, her sexual freedom is a foregone conclusion. She’s under magical obligation never to have sex, so there’s never any question what she’ll do with an interested male character.

Conclusions and Questions

Cover for Raven: Swordsmistress of Chaos

Raven, one of Valeria's more dubious granddaughters

The archetypes above are both icons of the classics, and reasons for us to stand back and call bullshit. Perhaps even more so than the pervasive racism of the era, the female archetypes are defining elements of the genre… and for that, simultaneously classic and nauseating.

As a writer and a gamer, that’s hard to come to terms with. Can new work be recognizably a part of the genre without adopting its less pleasant icons?

Today, Valeria-begotten Sonja1 herself has descendants and reimaginings, as have most of the characters mentioned above. In today’s fantasy, which of these archetypes still hold sway? How have they changed with the passing of years, and what new ones have arisen?


  1. Yes, I’m aware of Red Sonya. However, the Thomas character has more in common with Valeria or Belit.

The Encounter with the Uncanny

Hyperborea, by Clark Ashton Smith

Hyperborea, by Clark Ashton Smith

The encounter with the uncanny is a foundational, though not ubiquitous, convention of sword and sorcery fiction. In it, the protagonist witnesses something which should not be possible according to the reader‘s worldview.

The classic encounter is with an unnatural creature. This is typical of Howard stories, for example, in which the hero exists in a loosely historical world1, but encounters monsters from outside the historical milieu. The hero has a series of puzzling hints of the supernatural, and then witnesses it directly.

Travels into the otherworld, as presented by Clark Ashton Smith or C.L. Moore, are not necessarily encounters with the uncanny, although the encounter may occur in the otherworld.

Whether or not the encounter is strange to the protagonists is irrelevant. In Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, for example, the characters often deal wryly with the strange.2 Conan is rarely impressed with the demons he dispatches.3  What matters is that the encounter is weird to the reader.

The reaction of the characters is secondary, but not totally irrelevant. Much like horror protagonists of the same period, heroes are often given to whimsical or phantasmagoric speculation when faced with the unnatural. Heroes, on the razor edge of wonder and fear, see the same half-formed and eerie ideas that we see when we look down the stairs into a darkened cellar. Critically, a hero’s speculation is usually half-right at best.4

Sword and sorcery5 diverges sharply here from high fantasy. High fantasy heroes typically have strongly formed ideas of what they do and do not know. That is, a hero might shiver at the unknown, dark shapes passing on the road ahead, but he will not speculate that they resemble a caravan of dead souls, walking eternally in search of their final rest. Not unless he has good reason to believe such a thing is possible.

The divide between the hero’s perspective and the reader’s perspective is critical, because it meaningfully separates the presentation of the encounter in sword and sorcery fiction from its cousin in horror fiction. In horror, the protagonist is typically more surprised and dismayed by the uncanny than the reader.

A common aspect of the encounter is the tease — hints at the supernatural set piece dropped throughout the story. These moments are where the reader speculates as to what lurks ahead, and perhaps pulls back a little, while the hero pushes forward towards his goal, with perhaps a thought spared for morbid and melancholy speculations.

The encounter with the uncanny is not necessarily the story’s final or climactic moment. The encounter is part of sword and sorcery’s shared heritage with horror, but one of the lines dividing early sword and sorcery from horror of the same era is that the plot doesn’t necessarily hinge on the revelation of or confrontation with the supernatural. Often, the revelation of the supernatural will drive the final conflict between the hero and human antagonists.

While a story may contain a number of supernatural elements, there’s usually only a single full on encounter. As I’ve noted before, a sword and sorcery monster is the hook and the line upon which the plot is reeled in. No surprise — not only does a single strong uncanny element hit harder than a profusion of the weird, but a good monster or horror was often the commercial selling point of a story. In a pulp magazine, a naked girl might get you the cover, but a half-described horror would be your slug in the table of contents.

(I will, in the near future, follow this with an article adapting the subject to gaming. For this article, however, I wanted a hard focus on literature.)

  1. Whether the almost-history of Solomon Kane or the historical pastiche of Conan.
  2. See, for example, Leiber’s Adept’s Gambit, or “Claws from the Night.” Contrast, however, with “The Bleak Shore.”
  3. He barely blinks at an ancient sorcerer king in “Black Colossus,” and wonders more at apes and pirates than living monuments in “Iron Shadows in the Moon.”
  4. Consider the Mouser’s endless guesses in Adept’s Gambit or The Swords of Lankhmar, or the more somber speculation he shares with Fafhrd on meeting Ningauble in The Circle Curse.
  5. …and the weird tale as a whole

Sword and sorcery monsters in gaming

Sword and sorcery monsters represent an encounter with the uncanny. Conan doesn’t typically fight through hordes of monsters the way he does hordes of men, nor do Clark Ashton Smith’s various heroes. Even where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser confront monsters with steel, they only once or twice battle them in a horde. Elric is the exception, but even then only occasionally.

Even more recent sword and sorcery heroes, like Hercules or Xena, rarely battle more than one true monster at a time — and they live in an age of monsters.

The sword and sorcery monster is, typically an individual horror, capable of menacing all of the characters in a story — and slaying more than a few. In the few cases where monsters appear in groups, the hero’s solution is almost always to run, while villainous or simply less wary men are slaughtered.

As an encounter with the uncanny, the monster is often the backbone of the story itself, or a recurring plot device on the way to the climax.

What does that mean for gaming? Well, the typical monster is a hazard to an entire group of characters. In recent Dungeons & Dragons terms, most monsters are not only solos, they’re effectively adventures in and of themselves… even if the object of the adventure isn’t to slay the monster. (And in early sword and sorcery, it rarely is. Beowulf and Hercules are monster-slayers in a way Conan is not.)

Consider the following hypothetical D&D framework:

  • Enter dungeon
  • Fight orcs
  • Slay dragon
  • Get treasure

As opposed to the following more Conanesque one:

  • Enter exotic location
  • Fight fellow looters (some of whom are killed by the demon)
  • Get treasure
  • Escape demon (maybe slay it)

These are, obviously, oversimplifications, but they suggest a few things.

First:

  • The monster is not necessarily there to be slain. (Though, to be sure, it probably can be. Monsters are generally as mortal as anything else.)
  • Most of the lesser bad guys are not minions or cultists of the monster, but rivals of the PCs.
  • The monster’s lair is as dangerous to the lesser bad guys as it is to the PCs.
  • The monster should be capable of challenging many enemies at once. Claw/claw/bite?

Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to abandon genre fidelity in favor of good gaming. But I also think that a little rethinking of formulae and set pieces, and some mechanics to supplement them, are appropriate in monster design.

As is often the case with sword and sorcery gaming, horror provides a better model than fantasy adventure. The classic sword and sorcery tale has a lot in common with the “monster of the week” format, except that the monster itself usually isn’t the objective.

The monster is instead a series of hazards and encounters that may, later in the game, blossom into a confrontation.