SWORD & SOUL:

Much needed new genre? Or “simply something old, with a new coat of paint”?

I grew up in a poor, tough neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago during the heyday of violent, organized crime. No, not the Prohibition Era mafia wars of the 1920s and 1930s. I am referring to the 1970s through the late 1990s, when gang crime was at an all time high. However, my experience was atypical and definitely broke all stereotypes of what “urban” life for an “at-risk” youth should be.

My family life was stable and possessing and displaying good character was stressed. Even the hardcore gang members would make sure you were going to school, staying away from drugs and reading comic books instead of hanging out with them if they deemed you to have the potential to do something better with your life. Hell, the leader of the gang in my neighborhood was an avid fan of rock music and paid me to teach him how to play Dungeons and Dragons. Like I said, atypical.

Or perhaps, not.

Perhaps the gang leader wanted to play D&D for the same reason I played; and why I read 20,000 Leagues under the Sea…and the Hobbit…and all the Choose Your Own Adventure books by Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery…to escape. As atypical as my “at-risk” life was, it was still an “at-risk” life and I sought to escape it – and indeed, this world in which I, and my people, have suffered so much – and, for a while at least, explore brighter horizons.

Often, however, I felt trapped, even in books and in Dungeons and Dragons, because the world I escaped to was just like the world I lived in – one in which people of African descent are perceived as – and treated like – second class citizens at best; as demons, Orcs (now, zombies) and other evils of the world at worst.

I could find no heroes that looked like me. And the heroic fantasy I loved so much was constantly hurting my young feelings by telling me how vile I was.

I and my friends could tell you all about the Conan, Frodo, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and the Cthulhu Mythos. We knew nothing about Imaro. Had we known – Charles R. Saunders would be a billionaire by now. Anyhow, being highly competitive and wanting to one-up my friends, I went to every college library that let me in (which was nearly all of them; I was the “adopted son” of many a librarian) and researched the authors of these stories (Young Readers: a library is something we visited before the introduction of the internet).

I soon came upon an interesting poem by H.P. Lovecraft that inspired me to write fantasy fiction and to write all of my stories, from that point on, with a Black man or woman as the hero:

On The Creation of Niggers

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

And then, it all made sense.

Robert E. Howard – the creator of Conan, the Barbarian and father of Sword and Sorcery – was a close friend and correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft. No wonder his works – like Lovecraft’s – were racist. Well-written, yes, but racist all the same.

Now, whenever there is a discussion about Robert E. Howard being racist, three main arguments are presented. The first argument is that Howard could not be a racist because he never participated in any racial violence. The second is that Howard was a product of his times and racism was as natural as breathing back then. And the third is that Howard’s fiction is no more racist than other fiction of that period. To these cliché arguments, I roll my eyes and answer:

Howard’s attitude toward violence inflicted on non-whites is visible in some of his letters. In a letter to psychopathically racist cohort, H. P. Lovecraft, Howard talks about a rancher who was investigated for the murder of a Mexican. “…just why so much trouble was taken about a Mexican I cannot understand” and in reference to a trial in Honolulu where native Hawaiians were accused of rape, Howard wrote, “I know what would have happened to them in Texas. I don’t know whether an Oriental smells any different than a nigger when he’s roasting, but I’m willing to bet the aroma of scorching hide would have the same chastening effect on his surviving tribesman.” Robert E. Howard writes approvingly of racial violence in more than one instance and in the letter to Lovecraft he has implied that he knows the smell of a “nigger when he’s roasting.”

As far as Howard being a product of his times and racism was as natural as breathing back “in those days”, this is what is referred to as “systematic” or “institutionalized” racism. It was indeed natural for the racist, for he benefitted from his actions and suffered very few, if any, consequences for those actions. The victims of systematic racism would beg to differ as to its naturalness though. Furthermore, I am a product of my times, I guess it is natural for us baby-boomers and Generation-Xers to sell crack, get infected with HIV and drop anthrax on Disney World.

Finally, to say that Howard’s fiction is no more racist than other fiction of that period is just ignorant…period. If I rob two banks, get caught and my attorney uses as my defense “Balogun hasn’t robbed any more banks than any other bank robber of this period”, they might as well add murder to my charges.

So, it was a burning desire to see myself in heroic fantasy – and the realization that none of the writing on the market that I had access to was going to satisfy that desire – that I started writing Sword and Sorcery stories with a Black man or woman as the hero. Much of the plot I took from the Dungeons and Dragons campaigns I created, so the settings of the stories were still pretty much medieval European, with an occasional adventure in Asia, as my friends were all caught up in the Ninja craze of the 80s. This continued until I went to college and started a serious study of African history to complement my lifelong study of African martial arts.

And thus began my writing of what I called “African Epic Folklore” at the time – my version of Sword and Soul.

What is Sword and Soul?

According to the genre’s founder, Charles R. Saunders, Sword and Soul is “African-inspired heroic fantasy.  Its roots are in sword-and-sorcery, but its scope is likely to expand as time passes.” Some of you might ask “Well, what is ‘Sword-And-Sorcery’, then?” The following are the defining tropes of the genre:

  1. Active, violent, larger-than-life heroes that are often outsiders or rebels. These heroes are usually amoral, yet possessed of their own code of honor.
  2. A dystopian fantasy milieu where supernatural beings are real and magic works.
  3. Magic is very rare and often grisly in its methods and effects; its practitioners tend to possess inhuman urges, or suffer from madness; and rarely is magic ever on the hero’s side.
  4. The power of the human will to prevail against sorcery, monstrous foes, and the challenges of a primeval environment are included in the writing to show the toughness and determination of the hero.

Although Sword and Soul has roots in Sword-And-Sorcery, it has grown into something inclusive of the genre’s tropes, but quite different. As Sword and Soul author, Stafford Battle, puts it – “This is more than brown or black skinned Conans stomping through the dense jungle killing monsters. You will find no white Tarzan characters dominating the local natives. Sword & Soul – at least in one aspect – is the retelling of our African heritage as Kings and Queens, conquerors, explorers, warriors, and dreamers who influence the evolution of world civilization.”

Looking back at the tropes of Sword-And-Sorcery, I can now understand why I was so attracted to the stories, even more than the “High Fantasy” of Tolkien. I lived in a dystopian world (and I continue to), wherein slavery, exploitation, repression, and the gritty, grisly horrors of war were realities. Conan faced these issues – and overcame them – with his wits, his iron will…and a Big-Ass Sword. Something I would have loved to do, had I been able to…or had I believed I was able to, but I only read about Caucasians saving the day.

Had my friends and I discovered Imaro back in the ‘70s or ‘80s, who knows, perhaps we would have taken up our Big-Ass Swords and saved the world by now.

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link and Rite of Passage: Initiation. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of three novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; and the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika and contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. At present, Balogun is directing and fight choreographing the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk –a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of three novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the science fiction gangster saga, Redeemer; and the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika. He is also co-creator of the soon-to-be-released role-playing game, Ki-Khanga™: The Sword & Soul RPG. Balogun is Master Instructor of the Afrikan Martial Arts Institute and Technical Director of Martial Ministries of America, a non-profit organization that serves at-risk youth. He is also a traditional African priest, actor and conflict resolution specialist, who works and lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, his seven daughters and his son.

30 responses »

  1. Brilliant, Balogun! Brilliant! I was fortunate enough to have been around, reading and writing, when Imaro first hit the scene. Charles Saunders means a whole lot more to me than just as a great writer. He was the first to believe in me and my writing (other than my parents, of course); he bought four of my early stories; he introduced me to David C. Smith; and we were in the same writer’s group, with Airship27 editor Ron Fortier, the Small Press Writer’s and Artists Organization. We lost touch for a few years, but what goes around once often comes around again. Now we are back in touch. I consider Charles a mentor and a friend. Through him I learned about sword and soul. Through him I learned how to write. Through him I am connected to countless other writers. It always irked me that DAW Books promoted Imaro as “a black Tarzan,” or that Imaro was often called “the black Conan.” TOTALLY wrong! Insulting, in many ways, I’ve always felt. Imaro was and remains a character that “fantasy” as a whole needed and still needs. And I think it’s so freaking cool that I know the man who started a movement, and I am very happy that this movement not only caught on, but continues to grow with many great writers and characters expanding the borders of “fantasy.” YES– we need sword and soul. It’s a breath of fresh air. The real world, like Saruman’s cloak, is made of many colors. I have always striven to make my “world” as realistic as possible. If I could accomplish a tenth of what Saunders has, if I can help change the face of sword and sorcery, of fantasy, if I can help contribute my share to the Cause and the Movement, then I will be a happy camper. Once again — YES. Sword and soul is not only needed, it should be required reading for anyone who dreams of writing any form of fantasy or science fiction.

    • Balogun says:

      Thanks, so much, for your comment, Joe!
      Coming from one of the great Sword & Sorcery authors, this means a lot. Charles has helped a lot of writers develop into the authors they desire to be – including me. You were blessed to have him as a mentor, which says a LOT about his mentoring skills because you are one of the greatest authors in the genre!
      Thanks, again.

  2. soulsage1260 says:

    Thank you for posting this. I had no idea Lovecraft and Howard were racists. Please keep writing sword and soul ficiton.

    • Balogun says:

      Thank YOU for your comment.
      Yeah, they were. They were incredible writers, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were, indeed, racists and their racism has hurt many young people of color who admire their work. I will most certainly keep writing Sword and Soul forever!

  3. Ronald T. Jones says:

    I read a Solomon Kane story called Wings in the Night. The prose was a poetic combination of elegant and brutal as typified Howard’s style. Kane makes for a formidable protagonist, a Conan in puritan garb. The action was energetic and intensely violent. All of these aforementioned elements made for a fine piece of heroic fiction and throughout the story, Howard never makes the reader forget the power and prowess of white manhood. Here is a concluding paragraph in Wings in the Night that highlights Howard’s racial chauvanism:

    Kane sttod with the Ju-Ju stave and the smoking pistol in the other, above the smoldering ruins that hid forever from the sight of man the last of those terrible, semi-human monsters whom another white skinned hero had banished from Europe in an unknown age. Kane stood, an unconscious statue of triumph-the ancient empires fall, the dark skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth-whether he be called Dorian, Saxon or Englishman-whether his name be Jason, hengist of Solomon Kane.

    I haven’t read many Howard stories, but so far, the above passage is the most explicit declaration of his thinking on race that I’ve come across. It also motivates me to continue featuring black heroes in my own work. In fact i just completed a short story inspired by Wings in the Night, but in science fiction setting, with a black female protagonist. Great article, Balogun! I grew up in Chicago. We might passed each other on the street or occupied the same bus or train! LOL!

    • Balogun says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ronald! That passage from the Solomon Kane story does indeed illustrate R.E. Howards racial views quite clearly.
      We probably have passed each other on the street…probably downtown, as I was headed home from the comic book shop, B. Dalton Bookstore, or Garrett’s Popcorn shop!

  4. Good commentary and well written. I was always drawn more to “high fantasy” than “sword and sorcery” (though enough authors collapse and blur these boundaries that the lines aren’t always so clearly defined), so instead of Howard’s Hyborian Age, I was in Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Weis/Hickmans’s D&D inspired world. Still, I had to negotiate when and where I entered as a POC amongst swarthy orcs, dark-skinned Haradrim and even more ebon-skinned “evil” Drows. Sometimes I didn’t know whether it was best to be left out completely or have to grit my teeth throughout. I too didn’t learn about Saunders work until much later in life, years after I’d decided to try my hand at writing the stories I so enjoyed but from a differing cultural perspective. It’s sometimes interesting to see the apologists for these more famous authors squirm to explain these issues. Granted, I make clear distinctions between Tolkien’s or even Salvatore’s very uncomfortable “racialisms” and the blatant white supremacist themes of someone like HP Lovecraft (On N*ggers remains a gem). Still, they all fit under a type of “othering” that is only separated by a level of degree, ranging from subtle to extreme. Of course, there were authors who bucked this trend like Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea—but that was rare, and in the end they whitewashed her diverse world on the book covers to better market the series. Today the best diversity in fantasy by a white author I can think of is the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series, where the Seanchan especially are very multicultural, down to a black queen—though they’re endowed with quite a bit of wince-worthy Orientalism. But this all begs a question you asked in your title—about what defines “sword and soul” or, more broadly, diversified fantasy. Are we doing anything truly unique and/or different? Or are we just recreating the general themes of predominant Euro-fantasy, but with a POC face—in this case, African, or our western-diaspora-syncretic-perspectives on that enormous multi-ethnic/cultural/religious/behavioral continent (What is Africa to Me? – Cullen) of our ancestral memories/romanticizations? Does our fantasy follow the common hetero-orthodox hero/villain dynamic complete with “othered” inherently evil sub-human hordes who are dispatched guilt-free, or are we breaking ground by daring to take our tales into wholly different directions? Are the women we create merely African knife/spear-wielding eye-candy versions of our Anime/Red Sonja inspired male fantasies, or do they become complex enough to include womanist frameworks—not to mention, pass the Bechdtel test? Then again, many may ask, should we have to do so? Is requiring POC fantasy to be transcendent in a way that Euro-fantasy does not, an unfair burden? I guess what I’m doing is continuing your question, and asking if beyond the skin, beyond the cultural difference of spears over broadswords, can “sword and soul” or POC fantasy be truly different from many of the tropes/themes that define the larger genre?

    • Balogun says:

      Thanks for your comment. It is very well written.
      I believe we are writing something different from Euro-Fantasy.
      While some Sword & Soul stories are simply Euro-Fantasy in black face, most are not.
      The magic and creatures are very unique and the stories deal more with ancestral veneration and a connection to nature / the divine than is found in most Sword-and-Sorcery fare. Finally, Sword & Soul heroines are rarely treated as sword-wielding vixens in chainmail bras. They are written to be powerful, courageous, intelligent, independent and – yes – beautiful.
      I believe the majority of the stories are unique enough to merit a subgenre, just as Sword – and -Sorcery was unique enough to be considered a subgenre of fantasy.
      Sword and Soul is more malleable and more open to experimentation, as it is still very new. The subgenre is still growing…still developing…and will continue to do so. Sword & Soul lives…may it live forever!

  5. sarafina connor says:

    my word. i needed this years ago, to help me make sense of my obsession with horror, fantasy, and sci-fi- to the disdain and critique of friends who accused me of “wanting to be white” (a la John Ogbu I later learned). how different my trajectory if I got to be a sci-fi geek in a world full of characters who looked, sounded, and talked like ME. this was a LOVELY LOVELY read… the same reason you write is the same reason I teach. it’s CRITICAL we give our youth infinite identity options…

    • Balogun says:

      I concur!
      I am a teacher as well (ELA / Creative Writing; martial arts). My students were reluctant readers until I introduced them to books with main characters who look like them.
      Thanks, so much, for your comment!

  6. [...] recently wrote a Fantasy novel in the Sword & Soul subgenre. This novel, Once Upon A Time in Afrika, attempts to turn these tropes on their heads. [...]

  7. [...] Upon A Time In Afrika is written in the subgenre of Sword & Soul. For those unfamiliar with what Sword & Soul is, here are definitions from several authors who [...]

  8. [...] the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/. His books are available on Amazon and [...]

  9. [...] term I use for the Fantasy subgenres of High Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy / Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Soul. If you ever see a book whose cover depicts a guy fighting a dragon, or a freakishly muscled [...]

  10. [...] have since accepted that I primarily write what is called Steampunk / Steamfunk and Sword & Soul, but I mash-up these genres and others, because I continue to write what I want to read and what I [...]

  11. It’s sad how poisonous such great works can be. As a female who read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber and the like while growing up, I had a hard time writing female protagonists for ages, because all the women were villainous or ornamental or just not there, and I couldn’t connect with that. Then, for a while, it seemed like every female-headed story was a rape-revenge, like that was the only thing that could stir a female character toward heroism. It’s taken a long time to get over that distaste for those roles in older-style fantasy and not perpetuate them myself. Still a work in progress, I think. But kudos to you for all you’ve done and are trying to do.

  12. [...] Dumb luck a few months ago brought me to the blog Chronicles of Harriet, by steamfunk author Balogun. I was absolutely delighted. I had never even heard of steamfunk before, and I dove right in. Balogun doesn’t just write steamfunk – he also blogs about just about anything related to African-American (or African) characters, authors, movies and if you are interested in sword & sorcery or high fantasy I highly suggest you check out sword & soul. [...]

  13. [...] Milton Davis, Valjeanne Jeffers and, of course, Charles Saunders are written in the subgenre of Sword and Soul and by writing such stories, these authors are applying the African principle of [...]

  14. [...] one of Balogun’s blog posts titled,” SWORD & SOUL: Much needed new genre? Or “simply something old, with a new coat of paint?” He wrote the following: “According to the genre’s founder, Charles R. Saunders, Sword and Soul [...]

  15. [...] THE THIN LINE: The Root of Steamfunk, Steampunk and Sword & Soul [...]

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  18. […] I write speculative fiction – mainly Steamfunk, Dieselfunk and Sword & Soul. […]

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  21. […] premier natural hair shop in the Southeastern United States, to bring you an exciting evening of Sword and Soul, Steamfunk and Urban […]

  22. […] Imaro by Charles Saunders – A masterwork from the father of Sword and Soul. Imaro is the definition of great Heroic Fantasy. […]

  23. Ruth DJ says:

    As a woman, I kinda noticed that more than the lack of diversity. Although my favorite author was Andre Norton, who did have diverse characters in her books, so perhaps it was because I had a good influence in my sci-fi reading. But I too was always the alien in the bookstore in the science fiction section, as the guys tried to push me aside.

    Not a good idea, I have sharp elbows and I’m not afraid to use them…

    And I hated Howard. Sorry Howard lovers, but he was a sexist pig. And I never read Hubbard, I refuse to support Scientology.

    Great article and I so appreciate you sharing your experiences. It helps those of us with different life experiences to better understand our brothers and sisters of Color and the issues they faced when they were coming up.

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