Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sword and Sorcery and Video Games, Part One

Hello Cromrades! Josh here. It has been on my mind for a while to explore the influence and prevalence of sword and sorcery in video games. I've decided initially to focus on games that were first released for the Nintendo Entertainment System during the 1980's.

Before delving into a discussion of the tropes and references found in these video games, perhaps a brief exploration of what constitutes sword and sorcery is in order. We know that Robert E. Howard popularized the genre with his heroes Kull, Conan, and Solomon Kane. We know further that the term was coined by Fritz Leiber, first in the April 1961 issue of Ancalagon as a response to Michael Moorcock's call for a name for the type of fantasy story typified by Robert E. Howard. In the July issue of Amra that same year, Leiber wrote the following (the embellishments are mine):
"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 too!"
Lin Carter follows up on this idea later, in an essay titled "Of Swordsmen and Sorcerers" which serves as an introduction to the anthology Flashing Swords volume 1.
"...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 warior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil."
Carter's description is vague, and could be used to describe almost any fantasy story, but clearly there is some element that separates high fantasy from sword and sorcery. So, what are those "points of culture-level and supernatural elements" that distinguish sword and sorcery from other closely related genres? This is a point of contention, and a quick web search will result in several varied interpretations that usually mention a tough, often brooding hero, a treasure or magical artifact to serve as a MacGuffin which drives the quest, an elderly person who provides information or magical aid to the hero, Sometimes the quest might involve some kingdom-spanning peril, while most often the conflict is of a more personal nature. More often than not, magic users are people displaced in time or from an exotic locale, and they often have evil tendencies. Most descriptions focus on the intensity of action described through the story. In light of this framework, let's discuss the video game that kindled my love for fantasy tales, mythology, and gaming: The Legend of Zelda (1987).



I want to focus on the first game of the series, using only the material I would have had at my disposal as a 6 year old opening the cartridge and playing the game for the first time. That includes any story elements from the game, along with information from the manual which included this background to the game:
"A long, long time ago, the world was once in an age of chaos. In the midst of this chaos, in a little kingdom in the land of Hyrule, a legend was being handed down from generation to generation, the legend of the "Triforce", golden triangles possessing mystical powers. One day, an evil army attacked this peaceful little kingdom and stole the Triforce of Power. This army was led by Ganon, the powerful Prince of Darkness who sought to plunge the World into fear and darkness under his rule. Fearing his wicked rule, Zelda, the princess of this kingdom, split up the Triforce of Wisdom into eight fragments and hid them throughout the realm to save the last remaining Triforce from the clutches of the evil Ganon. At the same time, she commanded her most trustworthy nursemaid, Impa, to secretly escape into the land and go find a man with enough courage to destroy the evil Ganon.
Upon hearing this, Ganon grew angry, imprisoned the princess, and sent out a party in search of Impa. Braving forests and mountains, Impa fled for her life from her pursuers. As she reached the very limit of her energy she found herself surrounded by Ganon's evil henchmen. Cornered! What could she do? ... But wait! All was not lost. A young lad appeared. He skillfully drove off Ganon's henchmen, and saved Impa from a fate worse than death.
His name was Link. During his travels he had come across Impa and Ganon's henchmen. Impa told Link the whole story of Princess Zelda and the evil Ganon. Burning with a sense of justice, Link resolved to save Zelda, but Ganon was a powerful opponent. He held the Triforce of Power. And so, in order to fight off Ganon, Link had to bring the scattered eight fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom together to rebuild the mystical triangle. If he couldn't do this, there would be no chance Link could fight his way into Death Mountain where Ganon lived."
This provides a sense of the scope and breadth of this adventure. We have several elements of a fantasy tale: An evil wizard, a good princess, a wise woman, an altruistic sword-wielding hero with a sense of justice, and a quest to find a magical artifact which is the only thing that can stop the antagonist's scheme. So, is The Legend of Zelda a fairy tale, or a sword and sorcery story? Let's compare some tropes from the Conan stories to those found in the Legend of Zelda.

  • Antagonist: An evil wizard seeks to "plunge the World into fear and darkness under his rule," and only a magical artifact can stop him. (cf. Black Colossus and Thugra Khotan. See also The Hour of The Dragon and Xaltotun's motivations, as well as The Heart of Ahriman.)
  • The Initiation of The Quest: Link's quest is initiated by Impa, who represents the wise elder in our story. However, during the course of the game, Link meets an old man who often gives him magical weaponry or hints as to how to proceed (refer to Epimetrius from The Phoenix on The Sword, and Pelias from The Scarlet Citadel.)
  • Unnatural monsters: Ganon's minions include ghosts, skeletons, and other monsters beyond comprehension (see the pits of Tsotha-lanti, and Thog from The Slithering Shadow.)
  • Magical items: There is a magical item that is necessary to inflict damage upon Ganon during the game's climactic boss battle, the Silver Arrows (refer to the phoenix-marked sword from The Phoenix on The Sword.)
  • Medicine: A beverage that Link can find or purchase during his quest will completely or partially heal his wounds (see the golden liquid found in Xuthal from The Slithering Shadow.)

I am not saying that Shigeru Miyamoto was directly influenced by Robert E. Howard for his game. Instead, I am suggesting that Robert E. Howard's influence on the genome of fantasy literature was so pervasive that elements from his stories became tropes in the genre, and they were expressed in The Legend of Zelda as a result. While later entries in the Legend of Zelda franchise feel more mythic, more like high fantasy, I believe that the quest Link undertakes to reunite the pieces of The Triforce, to rescue Princess Zelda, and deliver the kingdom of Hyrule from Ganon's tyranny are closer in nature to the writings of Robert E. Howard than to J.R.R. Tolkien. 

I ran across some art by David Palumbo (here's a link to his blog) that casts Link in a gritty, pulp fantasy inspired way. Picture these in your mind's eye the next time you play The Legend of Zelda, and see if they capture the nature and feel of the game in a way that feels very natural. 


What do you think? Is The Legend of Zelda a fairy tale, or an example of the influence of sword and sorcery in the early days of 8-bit gaming? Sound off in the comments, or send us an email (thecromcast at gmail dot com).

Until next time!


Monday, November 17, 2014

Season 2 Episode 7: Finale to the Road of Queens!


Greetings, adventurers!!! Here we are, at another crossroad. What have we learned on the Road of Queens? What did you have to say? We tie things together here for the stunning conclusion of Season 2! We discuss some of the women in Robert E. Howard's work and life, and get into a deep mailbag. A BIG THANKS to everyone for your comments! We will undoubtedly return and tread the paths that we discovered branching from the Road of Queens someday. But for now, we must move along yet another road toward other adventures...

Random 'One Things' for this episode:

Jon: Space Ghost Coast to Coast

Josh: Leslie Klinger's The New Annotated Dracula

Luke: John Scalzi's Old Man's War

Other web-resources you may find helpful:

Check out Skulls in the Stars' essay on Robert E. Howard's correspondence regarding his views on women in history (and women in general). 

Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Amazons and Amazons II!

Jeanne D'Angelo's art can be found on her Instagram account and also on her blog!

Chris Hutson's art can be found on his blog. Here's his art inspired by Conan story, "People of the Black Circle!"

Matt Smith's Barbarian Lord and other art can be found on his website(s)!

Terence Handley's Tellers of Weird Tales is an amazing resource for the creators of the weird pulps! 

Finally, check out the Averoigne inspiration (from Clark Ashton Smith) for the Dungeons & Dragons module, Castle Amber, back in the day! (Thanks for the voicemail, Matt!)

And, what do we have in store for Season 3?


Art by Tim Truman

SOLOMON KANE - The Avenging Puritan himself! Get into it! Much of the original Kane content is available in the public domain, or you can check out a more comprehensive collection released by Del Rey! We'll be using the Del Rey as our authoritative text which has the stories listed in order of completion, not publication. We'll be starting with Skulls in the Stars, which you can read on Project Gutenberg Australia.

Final bits:

Don't forget that you can support The Cromcast by signing up for your free trial of Audible at audibletrial.com/thecromcast. We recommend trying out one of their THOUSANDS of titles!

Our episode is freely available on archive.org and is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/ 

Beginning theme: "Sudden Defeat" by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. 

Our epic closer is a portion of Kvelertak's Evig Vandrar, or, The Eternal Wanderer, from their second album, Meir. These Norwegian guys turn it up to ELEVEN. And we're pretty sure they broke the knobs off the amps.... 'Cause they keep that eneit there. Check out both their first and second albums... If you like the metal, you won't be disappointed. All music was obtained legally; we hope our discussion of this content makes you want to go out and purchase the work!

Questions? Comments? Curses? Email us! (thecromcast at gmail dot com)

Leave us a voice mail! (859) 429-CROM! (That's 859-429-2766)

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cromtober, Part III: Robert E. Howard's "The Cairn on the Headland"



Oh, hello there! Good evening. It's such a pleasant night here on the headland, isn't it? I do so much enjoy being here in the evenings. My doctor tells me the ocean air is good for my convalescence, so I try to make it out here before the sun sets. It's so peaceful, an almost timeless quality to the landscape, don't you agree? It's almost unbelievable to think of the barbarous battle that spilt so much blood here nearly a millennium ago...
Hugh Frazer's Battle of Clontarf (1826)
And so our Cromtober 2014 shenanigans draw to a conclusion! In our third episode we tackle Robert E. Howard's The Cairn on the Headland! It was first published in Strange Tales in 1933. If you don't have a copy of the story to read, check it out here for free! While you're at it, make sure you read up a little bit on the Battle of Clontarf! Or listen to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History episode on this era of history. That guy knows his stuff!!!

And we had a plethora of spooky 'One Things' as we head into the homestretch for Halloween....

Jon: the zany Bruce Campbell vehicle, Bubba Ho-Tep!

Josh: the Paul W.S. Anderson cult favorite, Event Horizon!

Luke: Another seasonal text, The Book of Hallowe'en!

Don't forget that you can support The Cromcast by signing up for your free trial of Audible at audibletrial.com/thecromcast. We recommend trying out one of their THOUSANDS of titles!

Our episode is freely available on archive.org and is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/ The spooky organ intro comes from (we think) the public domain (via the YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2RP1GivOqo). Our epic closer is the tail-end of Agalloch's Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires. Agalloch are AMAZING, and their song absolutely fits into our pagan Norse discussions, don't you think? We hope our discussion of this content makes you want to go out and purchase the work! All music was obtained legally. And seriously, go pick up some of Agalloch's discography. Check out Marrow of the Spirit or, their newest, The Serpent and the Sphere!

Questions? Comments? Curses? Email us! (thecromcast at gmail dot com)

Leave us a voice mail! (859) 429-CROM! (That's 859-429-2766)

Follow us on Twitter! Or on Facebook!

Subscribe to our feed on FeedBurner! Or, check us out on iTunes! Don't forget Stitcher!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cromtober, Part II: "The Music of Erich Zann" by Howard Phillips Lovecraft


Greetings, young scholar. I'm glad you found my advert in the newspaper!

Yes, I still have a room to let. It's up the stairs here. In fact, it's are right below the top floor. One Mr. Zann holds the room above you. Have you heard of him? I'm told he's a viol player of some repute.
Looks like a student of metaphysics to us!
In our second Cromtober episode of 2014 we tackle H.P. Lovecraft's The Music of Erich Zann! It was first published in The National Amateur in 1922. If you haven't read this story, we really recommend it. If you don't have a copy of it, read it here for free

Artwork by Andrew Brosnatch used for publication of the story in Weird Tales in 1925
And we had a plethora of spooky 'One Things' as we prep ourselves for Halloween....

Jon: Weird Kentucky (and the larger Weird US series)!

(Note - Check out some of the Kentucky ghosts and monsters we mentioned! The Pope Lick Monster, and Bobby Mackey's Music World.) 
Hail, Goatman!
Josh: The Black Wings of Cthulhu (there's a follow-up, too)!
Luke: The Best Horror of the Year, Volumes Four & Five!

Our Cromrade Whiskey51 shared a link to an audio play version of this story with us. You can find it on archive.org! (Thanks for sending us the link!)

Don't forget that you can support The Cromcast by signing up for your free trial of Audible at audibletrial.com/thecromcast. We recommend trying out one of the The Best Horror of the Year anthologies!

Our episode is freely available on archive.org and is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/ The spooky organ intro comes from (we think) the public domain (via the YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2RP1GivOqo). The disconcerting violin interludes are Alexey Voytenko's The Music of Erich Zann, composed for violin in 2009. These were accessed via the Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAwSxtaD4II). We hope our discussion of this content makes you want to go out and purchase the work!

Questions? Comments? Curses? Email us! (thecromcast at gmail dot com)
Leave us a voice mail! (859) 429-CROM! (That's 859-429-2766)
Follow us on Twitter! Or on Facebook!
Subscribe to our feed on FeedBurner! Or, check us out on iTunes! Don't forget Stitcher!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cromtober, Part I: "The End of the Story," by Clark Ashton Smith



Hile, traveler! I bid you, please come out of the storm. Here... Have a hot meal and some tasty wine before we retire to the library to discuss 'many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.' What's that, you ask? Pay no mind to that parchment! 

"It is better not to ask.. . There is a curse on the pages that you hold in your hand: an evil spell, a malign power is attached to them, and he who would venture to peruse them is henceforeward in dire peril both of body and soul." 


In our first Cromtober episode of 2014 we tackle a Clark Ashton Smith story! It's The End of the Story, first published in 1930 in Weird Tales. If you don't have a copy of it, read it here for free!

And we had some spooky 'One Things' as we prep ourselves for Halloween....

Jon: Reader's Digest's Mysteries of the Unexplained
Josh: Colin Wilson's The Occult: A History
Luke: Ray Bradbury's The October Country

Don't forget that you can support The Cromcast (we need to eat too) by signing up for your free trial of Audible at audibletrial.com/thecromcast. We recommend trying out the CAS Anthology, "The End of the Story," which includes the eponymous tale.

Finally... Jonesin' for some additional CAS discussion? Don't forget to check out The Double Shadow!

Our episode is freely available on archive.org and is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/ The spooky organ intro comes from (we think) the public domain (via the YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2RP1GivOqo). The ending music is a portion of Type O Negative's "Blood and Fire" (Out of the Ashes Remix). Used without permission. RIP Peter Steele! All music was obtained legally (Oh yeah.... Who remembers the Mortal Kombat OST)?!?! We hope our discussion of this content makes you want to go out and purchase their work.

Questions? Comments? Curses? Email us! (thecromcast at gmail dot com)
Leave us a voice mail! (859) 429-CROM! (That's 859-429-2766)
Follow us on Twitter! Or on Facebook!
Subscribe to our feed on FeedBurner! Or, check us out on iTunes! Don't forget Stitcher!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Cromtober



Hello all! Our favorite time of year is upon us! The ambiance of the diminishing daylight hours and the leaves steadily changing colors and falling from the trees have combined to trigger our need for some scary stories!

Last year (all the way back in Episode 9!), we covered Pigeons From Hell and The Haunter of the Ring! This year, we are expanding Cromtober, and will be covering a story from the Weird Tales gurus we've mentioned most often. Here they are!

1. Clark Ashton Smith - The End of the Story

2. Howard Phillips Lovecraft - The Music of Erich Zann 

3. Robert Ervin Howard - The Cairn on the Headland

Three masters. Three classic tales. Three back to back to back episodes of The Cromcast!

Let us know what you think of these stories! 859-429-CROM! thecromcast at gmail dot com!

Happy Cromtober!

JJL