Of swordsmen and sorcerers

In my previous blog I mentioned that, while cleaning my rather disorderly bookshelves, I ran across my copies from the Lancer/Ace Conan book collection published between 1966 and 1977. I used to have a set back when I was a young adult, but somehow they were lost along the way to my present life.

In other words, I think I sold them during my college years so I’d have some cash. A move I later regretted and started to recollect them several years back as I ran across them at Half Price Books or on eBay or other places on the Internet.

I had just received Conan the Adventurer in the mail a few days ago, which I had found on eBay. It was the first book in the series I had read when I first discovered them on a bottom shelf at the Walden Books in the Capital Court Mall and the Frank Frazetta cover caught my eye.

I thought I had all twelve books in the original series, except for that one, but as I looked, I was disheartened to learn I was missing two more. That oversight has been corrected and they should arrive in the mail in a week or so.

Thus, I will have all the books that were part of the Lancer/Ace Conan series edited by L Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, which were:
1. Conan • 1968 • Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter
2. Conan of Cimmeria • 1969 • Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter
3. Conan the Freebooter • 1968 • Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp
4. Conan the Wanderer • 1968• Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp
5. Conan the Adventurer • 1966 • Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp
6. Conan the Buccaneer • 1971 • L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter
7. Conan the Warrior • 1967 • Robert E. Howard
8. Conan the Usurper • 1967 • Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp
9. Conan the Conqueror • 1967 • Robert E. Howard
10. Conan the Avenger • 1968 • Björn Nyberg and L. Sprague de Camp
11. Conan of AquiloniaPrestige 1977 • L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter
12. Conan of the Isles • 1968 • L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter

As you can see from the list, the books were printed out of order from the way they are numbered. Conan the Adventurer, the fifth book was actually printed first and Conan of Aquilonia, the eleventh book was printed last, long after Lancer, which started the series, had gone out of business in 1974. It was printed by Prestige, which confusingly also reprinted the other books, but Ace Books distributed them until they themselves reprinted the series. So for the sake of brevity, and my fingers, I’ll just refer to this series as the Lancer/Ace Conan books.

In the 1950s, as I mentioned in my previous blog, Gnome Press released several hardcover collections of Howard’s Conan. I’d like to think that these books were responsible for the sword and sorcery boom in the 1960s and 1970s. (I’ll leave the debate as to whether or not Tolkien’s works were the impetus for the resurgence of Conan’s popularity to others so inclined to argue those kinds of things.) Because of the Gnome Press books, and L Sprague de Camp’s involvement, those led to the Lancer/Ace book releases of Conan, featuring art by Frank Frazetta.

But an odd thing happened along the way. The Gnome Press books had to be sold at half price by the publisher to recoup losses. Howard’s previous published book, Skull-Face and Others published by Arkham House in 1946 didn’t sell out it’s run of 3,000 copies until 1960. So what then did lead to the sword and sorcery revival of the 1960s? Several things, one of which involved my other favorite fantasy author, Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In 1962, a California librarian tried to ban the Tarzan novels on the grounds that they were immoral because Jane and Tarzan were not married yet living together. It’s a sad statement that a person employed to be a watchdog of literacy could be so illiterate. If she had only read the second book in the Tarzan series, The Return of Tarzan, she could have saved herself a lot of embarrassment because she would have learned that Tarzan and Jane, in fact, were wed near the end of that novel. One can only assume her knowledge of a literary character came from the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies where it did seem Jane and Tarzan were living in sin.

Her attempts at censorship led to a huge backlash among the fans of the Lord of the Jungle as they rushed to his defense. As newspapers across the country recounted the story, it led to a fresh interest in Tarzan and the other fantastic stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In 1963, several ERB novels were reissued and they were gobbled up so rapidly, it led to nearly all his novels eventually being reprinted. At one point, ERB’s works accounted for nearly 10% of all paperback sales.

So as we can see, nothing happens in a vacuum. The popularity of ERB’s “sword and planet” stories helped boost interest in Conan and sword and sorcery stories.

But once the tsunami of Conan’s popularity grew, it took on life in new media. Marvel Comics released their Conan the Barbarian comicbook drawn by Barry Smith in 1970. A comicbook series that ran for 275 issues and led to several off-shoots, such as the black and white graphic magazines, Savage Tales and the highly successful Savage Sword of Conan, a newspaper series that ran from 1978 to 1981, a pair of movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (three if you count Red Sonja), and a television cartoon and a live-action series.

Conan had coattails, as they say in politics. His resurgent popularity helped create an interest in other sword and sorcery tales. John Jakes created a Conan-like character named Brak the Barbarian, which appeared in several stories published in Fantastic and other magazines. The stories were first collected in novel form in 1968. A total of five Brak books were released before John Jakes turned his back on the genre and started writing mainstream stories.

Fritz Lieber, although he had created his characters Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser back in his college days (along with his roommate Harry Otto Fischer), and although the first story was published in 1947, it wasn’t until the stories were collected and released as paperbacks beginning in 1970 that their popularity soared.

Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné first appeared in the story, “The Dreaming City” which was published in Science Fantasy magazine #47 on June of 1961. Other magazines appearances for Elric followed, until finally in 1977 DAW gathered all the stories and released them in a collection of six paperbacks.

Andrew J. Offutt began publishing his Cormac Mac Art series starting in 1975 and also contributed to the Conan saga with Conan and the Sorcerer (1978), Conan: The Sword of Skelos (1979), and Conan the Mercenary (1980).

Robert Adams in 1975 created his post-apocalyptic series the Horseclans, which was so popular he wrote a total of eighteen novels.

And let’s not forget others not known primarily for sword and sorcery who contributed to the genre in those days thanks to Conan, such as Andre Norton and her Witch World series, Larry Niven and his Warlock series, Jack Vance and his Dying Earth series.

Many say the term “sword and sorcery” was coined by Fritz Leiber, and they’d be correct in that assumption, except as the whole story goes, it was Michael Moorcock who had a letter published in the Conan fanzine Amra in which he demanded a term for Howardian-style stories. He suggested “epic fantasy,” which ironically is now what Tolkienesque stories are called. It was Fritz Lieber, responding in another journal, Anacalagon, and later expanded upon his thoughts in an issue of Amra that sword and sorcery was a good catchall phrase for the genre.

Many of the writers listed above were all part of an informal society created by Lin Carter known as SAGA, Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America. The literary organzation was open to men and women who wrote heroic fantasy. His Flashing Swords! series of books showcased the works of many of SAGA’s members. And now having written that, I learn that the book Swords Against Tomorrow, edited by Robert Hoskins and published by Signet Books in 1970 was the first collection of stories by the SAGA members (with the exception of Leigh Bracket, who was never a member).

Lin Carter also created the Gandalf Award, which honored excellence in fantasy literature, in the way that the Hugo Award honored science fiction, and was awarded from 1974 through 1981.

SAGA and the Gandalf Award died, sadly, with Lin Carter in the 1980s when he fell into ill-health and finally passed away in 1988.

And I apologize, because in my last blog I said I’d do a review of the first book in the Lancer/Ace Conan series, Conan. Well, I did say “maybe.” And I will. Soon. Starting with Conan. But today, I thought it would be fun to continue on the Conan historical theme, if not necessarily the books themselves.

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