Sword & Sorcery's obsession with the Ebb and Flow of Civilization

WEIRD, right?
Any discussion of Sword & Sorcery inevitably touches on the work of Robert E. Howard. Most of you guys and gals reading this are probably intimately familiar with the man's work, so I need not mention the Conan, the Kull, the Bran Mak Morn, etc. 

Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber and M. John Harrison, Karl Wagner and Clark Ashton Smith -- all of these guys have utilized and at times played with and/or expanded on Howard's themes. Some of them are right up in the foreground:
  • A semi-civilized, semi-barbaric and Balkanized landscape
  • A one-two punch style narrative in which a hero (or anti-hero) faces off against some monstrous and/or supernatural menace
  • Fear of the alien/foreign as a source of tension
  • A flawed but powerful protagonist
These are all more or less vital elements of a traditional S&S tale. Today I want to cover another one that I feel is just as essential as those I listed above:


REH was an extreme pessimist, I gather. I haven't read de Camp's notorious Howard biography just yet, so my current impression of Howard the human is based entirely on his letter-exchanges with H. P. Lovecraft, THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, and Mark Finn's excellent BLOOD & THUNDER. REH seems to have had a highly romantic disposition with a downward trajectory that would probably be dubbed bi-polar by most modern alienists and professional witch-doctors. 

This impression of the world and himself naturally leaked into his work. Like his contemporaries HPL and J. R. R. Tolkien, Howard's imagination spawned worlds in turmoil, struggles between man and man, man and the monstrous, man and time. Time and its deleterious effects on the world was one of Howard's favorite themes. Kull's world is sandwiched between globe-altering disasters. Conan's Hyborian Age comes next and eventually falls to the uncivilized Picts. Both ages see the rise of man to artistic and scientific/sorcerous heights. Both also usher in his total devolution to sub-humanity through violence. So no matter how far up mankind climbs, he eventually falls -- only to rise up again and begin the cycle anew. Basically Howard is telling us, "Don't become too used to what you have now, because it will all be taken away." And in Hyboria and elsewhere this "taking away" happens before our eyes: Nations fall or find themselves in a state of slow decay, sometimes simultaneously. The world is doomed.

It's a romantic notion in the Byron-y sense and one that is easily ported to D&D. It's probably fair to say that this thematic setup has found its way into most fantasy RPG settings in varying quantities. Two especially strong examples would be TSR's DARK SUN and Bard Games' TALISLANTA

It's entirely possible to amp up this theme in an existing campaign by hacking away at the strongest roots of civilization in the game-world. 
  • Orc warbands are in the process of destroying mankind's last city.
  • The Emperor has died and there is no consensually agreed-upon heir (see GAME OF THRONES).
  • A supernatural disease (zombie-ism?) has mankind on the ropes.
The more desperate the crisis, the more pessimistic things should become. All those friendly inns have been reduced to cinders, their families and livestock thoroughly raped and dead (not necessarily in that order). The agrarian system has taken a major hit and -- guess what -- there is no readily available source of food. Hunter-gathering becomes the only means of survival. Trust is not something granted lightly -- and why trust someone you're just going to kill and eat anyway? All the halflings, kender, ewoks, fauns and satyrs are dead or deeply hidden, so don't expect any friendly faces to pop up and save your Jedi-ass in the wilderness.

That's my take anyway.

Poor book, great design


  1. I think there is an element of this in a lot of S&S, and you're right--it would make a good addition to a game. Rather than the implicit idea that the remains of fallen civilizations are being rediscovered, it could be the PC's on civilization that's collapsing.

  2. The notion that one's civilization will fall reminds me of the Eddas.

    Cattle die, kinsmen die
    thou too shall die in thine own time.

    Howard was clearly influenced by his notions of Norse values.

    Other writers of heroic fiction were also classicists - IIRC Fletcher Pratt read Old Norse, and many British fantasists were familiar with Greek and Latin, so the writers were aware of dead civilizations.

  3. The wreck of Rome casts a long shadow, doesn't it?

    That said, it's during the chaos and squabbling of the Great Fall into Barbarism that some of the best stories can be told (King Arthur, Belisarius, KEW's Kane, Asimov's Foundation, Anderson's Flandry of Terra, Gemmell's Drenai, Star Wars, etc.)