Fantasy readers and movie-goers maintain an expectation that protagonists will battle supernatural forces. Those forces may manifest in humans (“bad guys”); however, when the supernatural element is diluted (or superficially offered in clichéd, familiar forms so that the protagonist literally battles a man) then expectations are not met. Consumers become disappointed. The lack luster reception of this year’s movie, Conan the Barbarian, is a good example of this expectation being unsatisfied.
Of course, Man vs. Supernatural conflict is ubiquitous across fantasy. Most recognizable of Supernatural antagonists may be Tolkien’s bodiless Sauron. Nearly three decades before Sauron stalked bookshelves and haunted rings, Conan creator Robert Ervin Howard originated the Sword & Sorcery genre by writing action-packed shorts exploring Man vs. Supernatural.
I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story… (Fritz Leiber, Amra, 1961)
But it was Lin Carter who may have best defined Sword and Sorcery in his introduction to his Flashing Sword series (Carter, with L. Sprague de Camp, posthumously co-authored several Conan tales):
We call a story Sword & Sorcery when it is an action tale, derived from the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land or age or world of the author’s invention—a milieu in which magic actually works and the gods are real—and a story, moreover, which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil. (Lin Carter, Flashing Swords I, 1973)
REH wrote twenty-one Conan tales, and no human antagonist persisted across them. Each story had bad guys/creatures/etc., but they were overt proxies for greater supernatural evils. Hence, the conflict was Conan (the Man) vs. Supernatural.
One reason the 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie obtained better reception than the 2011 version can be explained by analyzing the core conflicts. In the 1982 version, Conan fought the serpent cult of Set led by Thusla Doom. But the movie was not about Conan vs. Thulsa Doom. Thulsa was just a representative for his serpentine god, and Conan was continuously fighting other representatives of Set, including a giant snake. In fact, Thulsa arguably was not even human since he transformed into a serpent!
On the other hand, the 2011 reboot pits Conan against the evil Khalar Zym. Khalar, a man, spends his entire life re-assembling the purportedly sorcerous Mask of Acheron (infused with enough magic to transform the wielder into a god and ruler of the world). But repairing the mask appeared inconsequential in that it did not provide Khalar with any powers, nor did it transform him into a mythical creature. The expected climax was a battle between Conan and the god Acheron, but instead viewers were treated to a magic-less melee between Conan and the man Khalar.
Were you disappointed in the recent Conan movie?
About the author:
Looking for bloody action with genuine supernatural elements? Then I invite you to read my newly published novel Lords of Dyscrasia (click for excerpts).
Enjoy the Underworld!
Early Review: ForeWord Clarion Reviews, 5 Stars for Lords of Dyscrasia! “…Outside of the works of Poe and Lovecraft, there are few, if any, novels comparable to [Lords of Dyscrasia]… Beowulf comes to mind both for its epic quality and bloody action… The pace is nearly breathless…
Lindberg, who also created more than 50 illustrations and the cover for this book, makes the majority of current popular fantasy fiction read like recipes by comparison. Lords of Dyscrasia is highly recommended, though not for the faint of heart.”
Lords of Dyscrasia is currently available in ePub and Paperbacks everywhere!