Tuesday, 12 April 2011

An A-Z of Heroic Fantasy (A-M!)

Today I aim to provide you with a quick overview of Heroic Fantasy through a handy A-Z list (this post will cover letters A-M; a future post will take you from N-Z!). We'll be examining heroic fantasy through various forms of media, some of the most famous proponents of heroic fantasy, memorable characters, and familiar tropes.

First, a background:

Heroic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that came into being from an early age - The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Arthur: all were early examples of heroic fantasy. It tends to deal with a hero and his exploits in a serialised fashion, defeating monsters and man at a micro level of fantasy. It is not the sweeping look at civilizations and cultures provided by epic fantasy, nor the more magic-dominated sword and sorcery. It tends to be darker and gritty, although not without moments of great humour. Absolute evil and absolute good tend to be absent from tales of heroic fantasy. Many heroic fantasy tales have been turned into a lengthy series of adventures. Their lower stakes and less than world-threatening dangers make this more plausible than a repetition of the perils of epic fantasy.

A is for...

Axes! And weaponry in general. But mostly axes. Conan the Barbarian carried a sword, but Druss the Legend (from various novels by David Gemmell) carried an axe he called Snaga. In heroic fantasy the weapon of the main character often has a history of its own - either handed down from forbears, or hard-won in a duel/quest. The typical hero will look after his weapon carefully, and, during many quiet campfire scenes, can be found polishing it.

B is for...


This is one of the early examples of heroic fantasy, being written somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. In the poem, Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, battles three antagonists: Grendel, who has been attacking the resident warriors of the mead hall of Hroðgar (the king of the Danes), Grendel's mother, and an unnamed dragon. After the first two victories, Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and becomes king of the Geats. The last fight takes place fifty years later. In this final battle, Beowulf is fatally wounded. After his death, his servants bury him in a tumulus in Geatland. There are echoes of modern heroic fantasy in this ancient epic poem - the episodic nature, the great hero defeating his foes, funerals of note.

We do not talk about Ray Winstone, people.

C is for...

Classical Epics.

This fits neatly with the mention of Beowulf. Alongside this incredibly famous piece of heroic fantasy history, you can add The Odyssey, Norse sagas and the Epic of Gilgamesh. All were heavily linked with oral traditions of storytelling, and it has been demonstrated that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes, each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorization, as the poet is recalling each episode in turn and using the completed episodes to recreate the entire epic as he performs it.

D is for...

David Gemmell.

One of the greatest proponents of heroic fantasy - from his writing we have such heroes as Druss the Legend, Waylander, and Skilgannon. All are extremely typical of heroic fantasy - reluctant to perform heroic acts, often simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, definitely shades of grey rather than black and white. Their heroism can mostly be attributed to an attitude of 'looking out for number one' and personal gain.

Gemmell has provided a lasting legacy in the field of heroic fantasy, and has never been surpassed.

Since his untimely death, other authors have been celebrated with the Legend award for writing fantasy fiction that follows in Gemmell's footsteps.

Still missed and never forgotten. If you haven't read any David Gemmell, go out immediately and pick up a copy of Legend or Waylander or Sword in the Storm. All are brilliant examples of his strong heroic fantasy.

E is for...

E. R. Eddison.

Eddison was one of those authors who rode the early wave of heroic fantasy - somewhere between Gemmell and Alexandre Dumas. His most noted work is probably The Worm Ouroboros, at the end of which the heroes pray for the revival of their enemies so that they may defeat them again!

The style of Eddison's prose steals rampantly from Homer and Shakespeare, Norse saga and French medieval lyric. His influences can be seen most strongly, and all are from a field that has fairly strong ties to the subgenre heroic fantasy.

Fantasy historian Brian Attebery notes that "Eddison's fantasies uphold a code that is unbashedly Nietzschean; had he written after World War II, his enthusiasm for supermen and heroic conflict might perhaps have been tempered."

F is for...

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

These two are commonly classed as sword and sorcery heroes, but they follow the usual parameters of heroic fantasy: named weapons, periodic adventures, down-and-dirty survival with little magic. They are the creation of Fritz Leiber, who wanted to write about more humane characters than those such as Conan the Barbarian.

Fafhrd is a tall (seven feet) northern barbarian; Mouser is a small, mercurial thief, once known as Mouse and a former wizard's apprentice. Both are rogues, existing within a decadent world where to be so is a requirement of survival. They spend a lot of time drinking, feasting, wenching, brawling, stealing, and gambling, and are seldom fussy about who hires their swords. But they are humane and—most of all—relish true adventure. The series includes many bizarre and outlandish characters. The two who most influence—and, some would say, cause the most trouble for—Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are their sorceress advisers, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. These two lead the two heroes into some of their most interesting and dangerous adventures.

Gollancz have handily included the first four tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in a handy omnibus called The First Book of Lankhmar, so there is no better time to catch up with the barbarian and the thief.

G is for...

God of War.

Here we move away from literary interpretations of heroic fantasy, and plunge into the world of computer games. Many computer games are heavily influenced by heroic fantasy, and this is one of the best examples of such.

I have to confess, I've never played God of War (1, 2 or 3), but a good friend of mine has - so here are his words on the subject and a link back to his review of God of War 3:

Kratos is not a happy man.

Kratos was never a happy man.

Kratos pretty much does what he’s doing to Helios there, except to everyone. He did it to the former deity of war: Ares. He did it to the former deity of wisdom: Athena. And now, having slaughtered close to a fourth of the Greek pantheon, he has returned, riding atop the backs of the formerly imprisoned Titans, to finish the rest of them off, climbing Mount Olympus to kill vengeful Zeus and eviscerate, decapitate, decimate, annihilate and sometimes masticate all of the mythical Chimeras, Minotaurs, Gorgons and Cerberi standing in his way.

The single word that would summarize this game is epic. There is absolutely nothing about this game that isn’t cranked up to 11, graphics or content-wise. From the great, primordial Titans that carry Kratos to face the Gods, brimming with their own heavenly fury, everything about this game is completely balls-off-the-wall.

Kratos is our anti-hero here, our chap who faces down man and God with gay abandon. He adventures across the world, reluctantly performing feats of heroism to be reunited with his family and to commit revenge against those who have wronged him. And it is very pretty.

H is for...


And now a quick hop, skip and jump into the medium of film. Highlander couldn't be more heroic fantasy if it tried! Mighty swords, epic battles, and characters who live forever.

From the Dawn of Time we came, moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives, struggling to reach the Time of the Gathering, when the few who remain will battle to the last. No one has ever known we were among you, until now.

Yes, the film is cheesy - the dialogue, the hammy acting, the bombastic soundtrack provided by Queen - but I adore it. I love the exploration of ideas such as what it would mean living forever, and watching loved ones die. The sword fights are tremendous, and the aforementioned music is *cough* a guilty pleasure of mine.

Just please.... don't watch the sequels!

I is for...

Iron Gauntlets.

This is an RPG produced by Precis Intermedia (formally Politically Incorrect Games and Spectre Press).

Here is the sales spiel:

Remember when fantasy roleplaying was simple? Go back to basics with Iron Gauntlets and create a customized campaign to fit your style. The rules are simple, yet robust, and keep the action moving. No classes or experience levels, Iron Gauntlets keeps it simple with consistent and flexible rules. The game is designed for people to tinker with it--because gamers almost always do. Add your own races and skills, or even create new magical powers.


Traditional Fantasy
Elves, dwarves, orcs, dragons, skeleton warriors, swords, treasures, magic... They're all here, just like you remember. 8 player races, 12 player backgrounds, 17 player vocations...

Versatile System
Iron Gauntlets is both easy to learn and easy to play. The rules are simple, yet robust, and keep the action moving using ten-sided dice. Diceless play is also possible when used in conjunction with Active Exploits Diceless Roleplaying. Or use with genreDiversion i games like HardNova 2, Coyote Trail and EarthAD 2 for 2D6 play.

Create your own special abilities, races, creatures, and even combat and magic styles. Iron Gauntlets provides a foundation with which you can play, but it also gives you the freedom and guidance to go beyond.

Versatile Magic
Four forms of magic (crafting, divinity, essence and totem) give you the diversity you need with enough flexibility to create your own effects and styles. What you won't find are tons of spells wasting space and forcing you to read information you probably won't use.

Sample Setting Included
Amherth is a base setting for Iron Gauntlets, providing an overview of the world and its gods, as well as detailed information for several locations, peoples, lands and its focus, the Kingdom of Tyr. Plus, several story seeds and a sample adventure are included to help guide directors.

Ready-to-Run Adventure Included
In addition to the short introductory adventure included with the Amherth setting, a longer, more involved adventure is included to get your players into the action more quickly.

Obviously the greatest RPG heroic fantasy was Dungeons and Dragons (but I couldn't possibly relinquish David Gemmell from my list, so we have Iron Gauntlet instead! *grins*)

J is for...

Jirel of Joiry

Heroic fantasy is heavy on the men, no doubt about it. Rough barbarians carrying large weapons - truly, a masculine paradise. Jirel of Joiry is one of the few women to gain a foothold in this subgenre. She is the proud, tough, arrogant and beautiful ruler of her own domain - and is probably more sword and sorcery than heroic fantasy, if I'm honest (although the lines blur frequently and often between these two subgenres of fantasy). I wanted to have Jirel in this list to demonstrate both that women could be written, and to show how very few there are. A gap in the market, perhaps? At the moment the only female heroic characters that I can bring to mind are those written in the Tale of the Einarinn by Juliet E McKenna (a decent heroic fantasy series that is often overlooked).

The esteemed Mark Charan Newton read some tales featuring Jirel and had this to say:

Then, onto C. L. Moore, the first lady of weird fantasy. I read the collection Black Gods And Scarlet Dreams, the Masterworks edition, and even in the first story, I could see it contained more imaginative power than a lot of this year’s combined fantasy output. My initial excitement wavered a little after that, for there were endless descriptions of psychological reaction, of emotion, of fear, of abstract shapes and entities. And I’m all for a little exposition, but some of this was way beyond heady. I admit I stopped halfway, after the adventures of Jirel of Joiry – a hugely important character in genre taxonomy, because she was the first proper female warrior/lead. I was impressed: Jirel was utterly non-sexualised, not made into some leather-clad male fetish – she was properly hard as nails, the equal of any male warrior.

K is for...

Kull of Atlantis.

Another creation of the legendary Robert E. Howard (alongside Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, amongst others), I decided to focus on Kull because he presents a different take on the heroic fantasy setting. Rather than faux medieval, Kull exists 100,000 years BC, born onto pre-cataclysmic Atlantis. Kull spends time as a slave, a ship captain and a gladiator, all occupations which are found time and again within heroic fantasy, so we can see a direct link between these works and modern heroic fantasy.

Amusingly (to me, anyhow - I'm very juvenile), in the Finnish translations of the short stories Kull was renamed "Kall" since the original name is in many common grammatical cases (including genitive) the same as a slang name for a penis.

L is for...


That would be the book. By David Gemmell. Love it or loathe it, this novel is pretty much the definitive article when it comes to heroic fantasy. Its importance cannot be understated, and Legend certainly had a hand in developing future works such as A Song of Ice and Fire and the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Joe Abercrombie's gritty anti-heroes owe an awful lot to Druss the Legend.

Here are links to a variety of reviews of Legend:

Fantasy Book Review: This is not Gemmell's best but surely his most important, a great place to start if you have not read any of his work before and a great blend of sword, sorcery and heroism. A MUST read for any heroic fantasy fans.

Graeme's Fantasy Book Reviews: Fantasy literature has moved on a lot since ‘Legend’ was published (1984) but it remains a book that’s worth going back to for a re-read. The message might be coming across a little too loudly but the story itself is first rate.

The Ranting Dragon: Legend undoubtedly earned its place in the canon, and thus deserves to be read by those interested in the development of the genre, but it is dated. It lacks the sophistication that experienced readers of modern fantasy tend to demand. It has potential as an entry point for new readers who would be scared off by typical epic “doorstop” tomes. The story is enjoyable if generic, but I have never seen an ending kill a book like this.

M is for...


Our last entry for today - and, fittingly, one of the first locations of heroic fantasy. Linked into classical epics, the traditional oral storytelling involving Gods versus Man was a place that heroic fantasy had its roots.

Take a look at this description, for instance, of Gaea:

She was the mother and wife of Father Heaven, Uranus. They were the parents of the first creatures, the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Giants - the Hecatoncheires (Hundred - Headed Ones). Uranus hated the monsters, and, even though they were his children, locked them in a secret place in the earth. Gaea was enraged at this favoritism and persuaded their son Cronos to overthrow his father. He emasculated Uranus, and from his blood Gaea brought forth the Giants, and the three avenging goddesses the Erinyes. Her last and most terrifying offspring was Typhon, a 100-headed monster, who, although conquered by the god Zeus, was believed to spew forth the molten lava flows of Mount Etna.

That is some pretty heavy duty storytelling and heroics right there!

My personal favourite of the myths is Bellerophon and Pegasus - but then I've always been a sucker for a horse in a story!

Both Greek and Roman mythology has been plundered in the writing of modern heroic fantasy. In more recent times we've also seen people turn to Mayan myths and culture (Aliette de Bodard), Indian (Ashok Banker), and Norse (M D Lachlan). It is a rich garden of morality, monsters and magic.

Thanks for bearing with me in this initial look at the A-Z of Heroic Fantasy, and join me soon for Part 2!


  1. Yay for the double heads-up for David Gemmell - I'm a long term fan and I've seen him dissed in a couple of places recently, so glad to see other people out there appreciate his legacy!

  2. Awesome article Amanda! I'd add the Mabinogion to the classics too, as they're one of the earliest incarnations of the Arthurian myths and very episodic in nature.

  3. I would add John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books here. Although set on Mars, these are really fantasies with a SF swirl.

  4. Good article. Man, I have a lot of these sitting on my shelf waiting to be read! Jirel, Lankhmar, Kull, Ourobouros, God of War...

  5. Great post! I really must try out Fritz Leiber's stuff - bought the first omnibus for Kindle.
    Looking forward to part 2.

  6. As a female warrior, I would add Taizu (The Paladin by C.J. Cherryh). She isn't as flamboyant a character as Jirel but she keeps her pace.

  7. I'm working on a mythology A-Z for days when I have nothing to post (a letter per day). Though I started in the middle and really need to pick an A!

  8. Technically, Conan carried a variety of weapons, not just a sword: in various stories he's carried daggers, axes, bows and spears, as well as improvised weapons like beef bones, blocks of wood and whatnot. He wields a great axe in the very first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword."

    David Gemmell is indeed one of the most important Heroic Fantasy authors of modern (i.e. post-1960s) times, and though I'm not that enamoured by Legend, I recognize its influence. I really hope Robert E. Howard has his own spot on the list, or at least one of his creations.

  9. "I really hope Robert E. Howard has his own spot on the list, or at least one of his creations."

    Check out "K"...

  10. Nice article! I'm looking forward to reading the second part, too!

  11. Love your article. cant wait for part 2. Heroic fantasy is my subgenre of choice so i am really loving this.

    David Gemmell's Legend was the first fantasy book I ever read and I have been a tragic ever since. Lion of Macedon, the Riganti books and all the Drenai books are amazing. I keep searching for someone who can match his work but i dont know if anyone ever will. he was truly a master of heroic fantasy.

  12. The God of War games are great fun but they're absolutely laden with a certain The 300esque macho ridiculousness. The fact that one of the subgames involves a threesome with some buxom wenches pretty much typifies the games' exploitative puerility.