Thursday, August 15, 2019

Is Sword & Sorcery 'trashy romance novels for guys'?

Appendix N: The Book -- a mixed bag  [see first post on 7/14-19]

So, I've now had time to read through all forty-three essays, plus the introduction, three game reviews, and an interview that make up Jeffro Johnson's APPENDIX N book, and my overall impression is that it's decidedly a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's an interesting project that he sees through to the end, and the book gets better as it goes along, as he builds up a kind of critical mass along the way. On the other, he doesn't have much to say on some of these pieces and quite a few times the essay takes a sharp turn midway through and drifts off into some other topic that has little to do with the book he's supposed to be discussing. Thus his discussion of Burrough's A PRINCESS OF MARS (essay V) focuses its attention on critiquing the poster for the original STAR WARS movie (he feels the movie doesn't deliver on the promise implicit in Princess Leia's cleavage in the film's iconic poster). His discussion of Zelazny's NINE PRINCES IN AMBER (essay IX) wanders off into a discussion of 1st edition AD&D's druids and monks. One of his Poul Anderson pieces (essay XXV) devotes two and a half pages to THE BROKEN SWORD and then spends the rest of its time,  four and a half pages, on 1st ed. AD&D's DEITIES & DEMIGODS. 

His comments are also occasionally weird, most notably in the entry on Howard's CONAN (essay X), where he argues first that Conan has a code of conduct (which I don't think anyone ever doubted) and then suggests that it's explicitly Xian (really? I must have missed the stories in which Conan professes 'blessed are the meek' and 'turn the other cheek'). An author need not share his or her character's beliefs, but anyone advancing this argument really shd address the fact that R.E.H. was himself a stone cold atheist.

Jeffro J.'s does strike gold at least once: the whole book is worth his moment of self-reflection where he confesses that he enjoys the sleazy side of books like Merritt's DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE (essay XVI), and muses that perhaps the book can be thought of as "a trashy romance novel for guys (p. 110). Expanding that thought out to consider sword & sorcery as a whole, and I think he may be on to something.  He also has a great line worth remembering when he describes a passage as "written entirely in High Gygaxian" (p.179)

In the end it's this book's thesis that Gygax's original Appendix N offers proof that we've been disinherited from our legacy: the great books and authors who wrote sword & sorcery (aka 'heroic fantasy') in the half-century or so before D&D debuted. Johnson concludes that these books are not just of historical interest for what they contributed to D&D but are worth reading in their own right. I on the other hand think that's only true of some of them. Some of these books and authors are great (e.g., Tolkien), some are terrible (Lin Carter, Gardner Fox), and many are in-between: an enjoyable read if you have a taste for the popular fiction of decades past (I do), a reminder of how bad bad fantasy can get if you don't.

So if the pulp fiction of a bygone era is your cup of tea, you might find this book worth your while. But be warned that if you've already read a book he covers you'll probably find yourself not learning much from his corresponding essay: his method is not to research an author or his or her works but to share his experience of reading them, to jot down thoughts that occur to him as he's reading the book in question. 

Where I think he goes wholly off the tracks is, not surprisingly, Tolkien. After having cited Tolkien repeatedly throughout the book, when it comes to the essay specifically devoted to JRRT (essay XXXXIII, the last in the book), he reverses himself and spends the whole piece arguing that Tolkien had no significance to the creation of D&D, serving only as the source of a few negligible borrowings. He even asserts that Tolkien didn't dominate fantasy in the 1970s, where he was one fantasy writer among many, but only came to dominate the field in the 1980s (p. 296). This is pretty much the reverse of historical fact.* 

The book ends with an interesting oddity: an interview with Ken St. Andre, creator of TUNNELS AND TROLLS, an early imitator of D&D. Closing a book on Gygax's inspirations by an interview with St Andre is like being unable to interview John Lennon and so deciding to interview Peter Tork instead.

--John R.
--current reading: APPENDIX N (just finished).

*for a corrective, read any good account of the Tolkien craze of the 1960s and also the role played by Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series in the late sixties through the mid-seventies.

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