This week's Friday Five is improperly barbaric - five distinctive looks at one of the oldest tropes in sword & sorcery, selected by writer JM Canning (who keeps a lamentably low-profile internet presence, but keep your eyes peeled for his work...).
Whether they come in the form of a muscle-bound swordsman with laughable hair or a chainmail bikini-clad hellcat, the barbarian hero is one of the oldest, most iconic and, for many, most cringe worthy tropes of fantastic fiction.
They’ve been with us since the beginning, at least since Conan the Cimmerian strode forth, sword in hand, from the pen of Texan pulp fictioneer Robert E. Howard in the early part of the twentieth century, and a lot longer than that if you want to include the epics of Homer and the sagas of northern Europe. It’s hard to think of a trope with a more ancient pedigree, but it’s also hard to think of one more despised, dismissed and maligned by readers and critics alike over the years.
Barbarian heroes are often written off as poorly characterized vehicles of adolescent wish fulfillment. Aside from being worthless as literary subject matter, don’t they also provide a dangerously warped and immature view of violence and gender politics for both men and women, among other things?
Well no, the majority of them don’t, and that seems to me to be one of the best-kept secrets in speculative fiction. For now, forget every Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo cheesecake painting you’ve ever laid eyes on, and consider these five trope-defying barbarians.
Kull of Atlantis
Before Conan there was Kull. The Atlantean first appeared in the pages of Weird Tales in 1929, in a short story entitled The Shadow Kingdom, now widely considered to be the first (and finest) example of American sword & sorcery fiction.
The reader is introduced to a Kull already enthroned in Valusia, the Land of Enchantment, and from the outset we see that here is a man beset by doubts and inner fears, a man who, having achieved his wildest dreams already, realizes he is now doomed to a life of suspicion, intrigue and betrayal if he is to keep what he has won.
King Kull is still a savage at heart, a hunter-gatherer who has lost none of his raw physical potency, but one who is overawed by the ancient civilisation that he’s found himself ruling, who struggles with the enshrined rituals and Byzantine politics of his court. Over the course of Howard’s Kull series of tales, we don’t see him charging around rescuing slave girls and looting tombs (he actually shows no physical interest in women at all), we instead see him defending himself from xenophobic nationalists, trying to alleviate the boredom of civilised life, helping several young couples avoid unwanted arranged marriages or simply sitting and pondering the mysteries of time and space.
Kull is the thinking man’s barbarian. His tales have a wonderful dream-like, melancholy quality, and feature little in the way of physical action. They are more preoccupied with philosophical themes such as the nature of civilisation, how it compares and interacts with so-called ‘barbarism’ and other such notions.
The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, for example, seems to be a metaphysical pondering on the nature of existence itself, as Kull sits for days in front of a series of enchanted mirrors and ends up wondering if the moving reflections are the real Kull and him the illusion. The story also features a very appropriate epigraph from one of Howard’s favourite poets, Edgar Allan Poe, which I find sums up this series perfectly:
“a wild weird clime that lieth sublime
Out of Space, out of Time.”
Fritz Leiber’s intention with his series characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser was to create a pair of heroes who existed in a world as fantastical as Tolkien’s but who were “earthier”, more realistic than the Oxford don’s but at the same time more fallible and altogether less superhuman than the likes of Conan.
At the outset of the series, Fafhrd actually appears to be a bit of a geek. He is tall but lanky. He has a high-pitched voice and was still living with his mother when all the other young men had moved out. He doesn’t seem to have any interest in taking part in the seasonal raids beloved by his fellow tribesmen, but is training instead to be a skald. He is cultured (at least by the standards of his own people) and has a burning desire to see what’s going on out there in the wider world beyond the village.
The deal is clinched when, in the introductory tale The Snow Women, a troupe of traveling players arrives in his tribe’s camp and he falls in love with Vlana, a dancer and actress from the exotic south. Indeed on their first meeting, Vlana remarks that Fafhrd seems much more like a priest or a healer than a warrior.
With Fafhrd we have the barbarian as Byronic Hero, at least in the early tales – a rootless young man, possessed of a deep, if reluctant, romanticism, who despite his moodiness and often unpleasant deeds and motivations is ultimately moral and is constantly seeking what Leiber fondly refers to as “true adventure”.
When he finally teams up with the Gray Mouser in the stories that follow, Fafhrd is frequently presented as being a considerably more moral human being than his supposedly civilised counterpart. In one memorable tale, while the Mouser is hiring out his sword to an unscrupulous gangster, Fafhrd chooses to abandon violence altogether, grow his hair out and join a pacifist religious sect!
Way back in the heroic fantasy glory days of the 70’s, African-American author Charles R. Saunders coined the term ‘Sword & Soul’ to describe the fiction he was turning out, fiction that was a direct response and reaction to characters like Tarzan and Conan which he enjoyed but found he couldn’t really relate to.
He describes his genre simply as “African inspired heroic fantasy”, and kick-started the thing with his own flagship barbarian heroes, Imaro the Ilyassai, a Conan-like barbarian (the comparison doesn’t do full justice to the character) and Dossouye, a fierce warrior woman who would probably make very short work of Red Sonya if given the chance.
Dossouye is a warrior of the ahosi in the kingdom of Abomey, which itself is set in the African-inspired continent of Ilodwe. Saunder’s worldbuilding is unique and gorgeously realised, with much of Ilodwe’s people and places drawing inspiration form real West African cultures.
This world is full of vudunu magic and dread sorcerers, with hints of gleaming, ancient kingdoms in the hinterlands There are also echoes of the real life West African kingdom of Dahomey in Dossouye’s homeland, which also famously had real life ahosi amazons. She also has a kick ass ‘epic mount’ in the shape of Gbo, her trusty war-bull bred from water-buffalo stock!
There are currently two collections of Dossouye stories, released in 2008 and 2012 through Sword & Soul Media, and they’re a real treat for anyone who’s feeling a little bit jaded with ‘the Northern thing’ (and chainmail bikinis for that matter). These stories have all the strengths of the Pulp tradition in that they are full of action, sorcery and wonder, but also contain depths of character, setting and novelty uniquely their own, which is itself, I think, a reflection on Saunder’s own background and his fresh take on the genre we love.
Egar The Dragonbane
How many barbarian warlords do you know who actually would like nothing better than a bath, a hot towel shave and a trim about the bangs? Richard Morgan’s A Land Fit For Heroes series takes the torch to several well-known fantasy conventions, but few are as keenly observed and dissected in these novels as the Barbarian Hero trope.
Steppe nomad Egar of the Skaranak is a grizzled veteran of a brutal war against a cold-blooded, alien foe, a war that thrust him afterwards into prominence and responsibility as chieftain of his tribe. Egar’s problem, however, is that he saw too much of the good life during his time away from home, and now he finds life in a herdsman’s camp almost unbearable.
The character of Egar is a real master class in playing with the archetype. For starters he’s not just a nomad because that’s what barbarians usually are. Morgan shows us all of the uncomfortable, nitty-gritty aspects of actually having to live in a buffalo-hide tent out on the taiga, surrounded by an extended family of tribespeople who’ll starve or thrive depending on your decisions, and at the end of the day the Dragonbane just isn’t up to the task.
I think Morgan actually has Egar’s character cleave very closely to the archetype of ‘bruiser in a loincloth’ but just goes into extreme and convincing depth with what such a person would actually be like. The end result is simply a triumph of barbaric characterisation.
He’s a jaded, aging thug whose swagger isn’t quite what it used to be, and he knows it. He misses his dead father, of whom we get the sense was a more capable Clanmaster than the son. He pines desperately for his former lover, a beautiful southern noblewoman who introduced him to all the culture and sophistication of the south, and he misses the banter he used to have with his gay best friend.
In short, he misses city life, the comforts of civilisation, and we realize pretty quickly that this elemental soul has been deeply compromised. After all, as the saying goes, you can never go home again.
We all know Joe Abercrombie is on a personal quest to tear down every trope, stereotype and formula he can lay his hands on and reshape it in his own gritty image. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of his most popular characters is a subtle but brilliantly original twist on our old friend the barbarian hero.
For starters, at the beginning of The Blade Itself it’s not immediately apparent that Logen even is a barbarian – he’s just a guy on the run in some barren northern clime. As the book progresses we learn more about where Ninefingers fits (or once fitted, at least) into his world, about the savage culture of feud and lust for battle-fame that made him what he is – and what he’s trying to get away from.
Logen actually comes across as a pretty decent guy – despite the odd gruff exchange he’s probably the most amiable of the trilogy’s protagonists, and despite the hints about the awful deeds he’s done in the past we’re pretty confident as readers that he couldn’t really be as bad as he thinks he is. And then, about half way through the first novel, Abercrombie drops the bombshell of what this man has been hinting at all along, of what he’s truly capable of – the Bloody Nine.
Fantasy fiction has seen it’s fair share of berserker characters down through the years, but no one does it quite like Joe Abercrombie. The shift in POV is beautifully sudden, jarring even. It’s a shocking moment when Logen’s brutal alter ego appears for the first time, but it’s a revelation that makes a reading of his ‘saner’ chapters all the more poignant and affecting.
He’s a man who’s trying to be good, a remorseful barbarian trying to escape the barbarity that has defined his entire adult life and which increasingly seems to be the only thing he can do well and be respected for. Abercrombie uses the barbarian hero trope to examine the entire genre of ‘men of violence’, asking through Logen Ninefingers the disturbing question: what if all you’re good at is killing? And if so, what can you do if you don’t want to be?
So there you go. I have to say, the list of potentials for this piece was a fairly long one, so if you have a favourite subversive barbarian hero or heroine, please share in the comments!