Tales from the Brass Bikini: Feminist Sword and Sorcery
By Paula R. Stiles
Decades before the tough, gun-toting vampire hunters with their sassy tats, navel-rings, and strange attractions to undead sexual partners from the other side of the fence, Sword and Sorcery (excuse me – “Heroic Fantasy,” we’re calling it, now) was the unapologetic ghetto of feminist fantasy. These heroines, who did not care one hoot whether they were drawn like men with tits or not, were powerful sorceresses, cold-blooded mercenaries with magical and Freudian blades, lusty queens, even lustier pirate captains, and female Conans who wore almost nothing into battle. If you wanted your feminism with a hefty dose of mindless, bloody action, S&S was your first stop. As a young tomboy growing up in the 70s and 80s, I ate it all up with a bronze dagger.
Unsurprisingly, this subgenre is a morass of bad attitudes. Some of them have been progressive; Sword and Sorcery is one of the first genres to present lesbians as perfectly acceptable protagonists. Some of them have been anything but: rape, and its frequent use as an origin story for heroines, being an especially troubling subject.
Plus, the many ugly tropes that women writers of the 70s brought to the subgenre from Romance appeared in their very writing styles. Too often, the authors spent more time on describing their characters’ clothing and ornaments, or the (not always male) love interest’s pretty hair, than on action or world-building.
Heroines “gasped” and “whirled” and “blushed.” They acted all modest and maidenly around the hero. They shuddered and sighed and turned pacifist when it came time to buckle a swash and draw some blood. They often found themselves, not the ruling queen, but the faithful retainer serving the dashing, ruling king. Or they contented themselves with being the real power behind the throne, rather than just ruling outright, because men were brutish and egotistical, but also dumb. Or, they were just a flat-out Mary Sue (Hello, Chosen Maiden, I’ve got your number). Some of that changed, just as earlier writers changed from writing stories of strong women from a man’s point of view to giving the women their own points of view, but it took a while.
Let’s delve into this messy playground and see what we turn up.
At first, there were few distinctions between fantasy and science fiction. All of it merged into the “weird fiction” of Lovecraft’s day (and earlier). Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, for example, was originally considered science fiction. Early female authors like Francis Stevens (Friend Island, 1918), C.L. Moore (Jirel of Joiry, 1936-9) and Leigh Brackett (The Veil of Astellar, 1944) wrote space opera and science-tinged adventure stories, sometimes with female protagonists, that were considered perfectly acceptable science fiction in their time. Andre Norton’s fantasy and science fiction (like Witchworld) often seemed to coexist in the same universe, or, at least, in linked-up parallel universes.
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series started out as vaguely-Scottish, medievalesque fantasy that was later retrofitted as science fiction. In the mid-70s, she started writing about the guild of the Free Amazons of Darkover, in novels like The Shattered Chain (1976), Thendara House (1983), and City of Sorcery (1984), as well as editing an anthology, Free Amazons of Darkover (1985).
The genre distinctions didn’t become any clearer over time. C.J. Cherryh’s Gate series; Gate of Ivrel (1976), Well of Shiuan (1978), Fires of Azeroth (1979), and Exile’s Gate (1988) is science fiction. But it’s told from the viewpoint of a superstitious narrator who perceives the high-tech science he witnesses as magic and lives in/travels through worlds that are distinctly medievalesque in set-up. Like some other male narrators in Cherryh’s stories (say, The Faded Sun trilogy), prodigal third son Vanye plays masochistic vassal to his female lord, Morgaine, and gets beaten up a lot on her behalf. This does not prevent him from being a sympathetic character.
In one of her Alys stories (“Southern Lights” in Amazons II, from 1982), Tanith Lee’s freebooting swordswoman encounters a clockwork town powered by magic. Joanna Russ also dabbled in early steampunk with a female hero in “The Extraordinary Adventures of Amélie Bertrand” (first appearing in 1979, and found in her collection, The Zanzibar Cat). And Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger saga began, like Bradley’s, very much as a medievalesque fantasy (albeit, even the original Hugo-winning novella, Weyr Search (1967), gave sci-fi underpinnings for the dragons and their “magic”) and eventually evolved into more straightforward sci-fi.
As late as 1995, there was Martha Wells’ City of Bones, with a male protagonist not unlike Cherryh’s Vanye. Initially appearing to be an Arabian Nights fantasy, it gradually turns into post-apocalyptic tale, involving genetic engineering, an ancient city and an even-more-ancient world disaster.
Sword and Sorcery, like Star-Wars-style space opera, has never much concerned itself with keeping the lines strictly clear. It’s not Hard SF, and often exists in “foreign” cultures, real or imaginary, so the Western ideas promoted in Golden Age SF don’t really apply. It may also be that the genre’s origins in Conan, Jirel of Joiry, and John Carter set up this sense of the exotic from the get-go.
Sword and Sorceress
The Golden Age of feminist Sword and Sorcery ranged from the mid-70s through the end of the 90s. Since then, it’s not done so well (though S&S zine Black Gate recently put out an enormous, book-sized “Warrior Women” issue, of which I have two contributor’s copies). But in that time, the whole genre was very popular and the feminist side of it was arguably the most prominent, even allowing for unfortunate S&S entries like Red Sonja (a masochistic swordswoman of the rape-and-revenge-origins type, based very loosely on two much-tougher Robert E. Howard characters, who first appeared in the comic, Conan the Barbarian, in 1973) and John Norman’s kinky, misogynistic and boring Gor series. Though many novels, and novel series, came out at the time, much of the genre was fueled by short-story anthologies, magazines, comics, films, and TV series.
One of the earlier anthologies was Sword and Sorceress, first published in 1984. Founded and edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley, it survived her death in 1999 and put out a 26th volume in 2010. The title says it all: Each story sports either a sorceress or a swordswoman as the protagonist. Bradley issued a now-famous broadside in the introduction to the second volume against the many stories she saw in the slush about ‘”Hearthwitches” and “gratuitous rape”.
Sadly, this did not stop her from publishing plenty of tales from both categories, but especially “rape and revenge” (I guess, if the woman doesn’t enjoy it, it’s not “gratuitous” rape). She also had a great fondness for purple prose and the Chosen Maiden type of Mary Sue heroine. But the anthologies themselves still contained some fine entries from the likes of Jane Yolen, C.J. Cherryh, Diana L. Paxson, Vera Nazarian, and Charles R. Saunders.
Sword and Sorceress also firmly established the idea that you could not only have a Sword and Sorcery tale with a strong female protagonist, you could have an entire anthology series (or even a subgenre) with strong female protagonists, enough for everyone later to pick out their least-favourite trope (Yes, mine is “rape and revenge”) and say, “Wow, that really sucked. Why did we get/write so many of those?” You know you’ve got a permanent and influential subgenre when you can look back and dump all over it. That implies enough stories to have an entire range from classic to just plain bad.
My favorite tales include: anything by Saunders from his West African Dossouye series (especially “Gimmile’s Songs”), “Red Pearls” by Richard Corwin, Deborah Wheeler’s “Imperatrix,” Jennifer Roberson’s “The Lady and the Tiger,” Michael Ward’s hilarious “Daton and the Dead Things,” and Terry Tafoya’s chilling “Tupilak.”
Some later anthologies, like Elizabeth Ann Scarborough’s Warrior Princesses (1998), were not quite fabulous, with stories that came across like fanfic or the first chapters of books (Scarborough, herself, has authored a number of fantasy series). But an excellent two-volume anthology that came out a few years before the first Sword and Sorceress was Amazons!, edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. This series had a harder edge than Bradley’s, reflecting Salmonson’s less Romance-influenced and more fatalistic worldview (as evidenced in her medieval Japanese fantasy trilogy, illustrated by Wendy Adrian Schultz: Tomoe Gozen (1981), The Golden Naginata (1982), and Thousand Shrine Warrior (1984)). Salmonson also began each anthology with an introduction about historical Amazons that prefigured her later non-fiction book, The Encyclopedia of Amazons: Women Warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Era (1992).
Like Sword and Sorceress, and Salmonson’s more general Sword and Sorcery anthology, Heroic Visions (1983, 1986), Amazons! included stories from both women and men, albeit, this time, only with female protagonists. Not contenting herself with contemporary fiction, Salmonson even published one of Emily Brontë’s early fantasy stories in the first Amazons! (1979), as “The Death of Augusta.”
The male writers, like Saunders and George R.R. Martin, are not above writing some tough women. It’s no real spoiler to say that Martin’s “In the Lost Lands,” for example, is the darkest werewolf story I’ve ever read. It begins and ends with the immortal line: “You can buy anything you might desire from Gray Alys. But it’s better not to.” To say any more would be to deprive you of meeting Gray Alys yourself. Others of my favorites include: Margaret St. Clair’s “The Sorrows of Witches,” Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” and “Southern Lights,” Charles R. Saunders’ “Agbewe’s Sword,” Gillian Fitzgerald’s “The Battle Crow’s Daughter,” and Phyllis Ann Karr’s boisterous “The Robber Girl.”
The 80s were also the heyday of the shared fantasy universe. Two very notable series were Thieves’ World (1978) and Liavek. Thieves World, which centered its tales around an urban guild of professional thieves, was too Dungeons & Dragons for my taste, so I never got much into it, but oh, how I loved Liavek. The series (edited by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull) produced five anthologies from 1985 to 1990, and drew in some big names of the period. It was set in an Arabian-Nights-style city-state (named “Liavek,” of course), protected by wizards against other city-states and their wizards.
However, the setting wasn’t the really original part of the concept—that was the idea that everyone in this world has wild magic (called “luck”) on the day of their birthdays. If you go through a certain ritual, and you have enough will, you can harness that magic into an object and use it for the next year. If you don’t do it within a specific period of time, though (the time your mother was in labor, I believe), you will lose your magic, waste away, and die.
As you can imagine, this was just an awesome idea and it infused the whole Middle-Easternesque verse with an original spin on the usual wizardly cold wars and Upstairs/Downstairs class shenanigans. One of my favorite small details was a common and easily-obtainable contraceptive called “Worrynot Tea.” One story (John M. Ford’s “A Cup of Worrynot Tea”) talks about that time of life, when a young girl is just a-goin’ to roam, so any anxious mother will make sure to sit her down for a nice cup of tea before she goes out for the evening. Needless to say, this one small detail is the basis for some surprisingly egalitarian gender relations in Liavekan society, not to mention a way for women in the stories to get laid without being called sluts or getting pregnant or the many other consequences in our society of unprotected premarital sex.
Favorite stories include: Pamela Dean’s “The Green Cat,” Barry B. Longyear’s “The Fortune Maker,” and pretty much any story with Kaloo in it.
Single author series
There are far too many authors in this category for me to do more than scratch the surface, but I’ll try to discuss a few favorites. The above anthologies introduced me to authors who later turned their series into novels. I’m thinking especially of Jennifer Roberson’s Tiger and Del series, which began as “The Lady and the Tiger” in Sword and Sorceress II (1985). It continued with Sword-Dancer (1986), Sword-Singer (1988), Sword-Maker (1989), Sword-Breaker (1991), Sword-Born (1999), and Sword-Sworn (2003). While I wasn’t too thrilled with the rape-and-revenge origins for Del’s swordswoman career, and I did enjoy Tiger’s backstory more (Del’s story petered out about halfway through), I still liked this series for its rollicking pace and quirky humor, as well as the action involving a tough female mercenary who could definitely take care of herself.
P.C. Hodgell’s God Stalk (1983) is a somewhat different animal. The Tiger & Del series trades in the simplistic “Frigid North and Desert South” type of world-building common to Sword and Sorcery (though Sword-Born has a nice, matriarchal take on Ancient Mediterranean island culture), with a Norse culture in the north and an idealized pre-Islamic Arab culture in the south. God Stalk uses another popular trope—the creepy, magical city on the edge of deadly, magical badlands. The place is full of gods and the sorceress protagonist, Jame, can take care of herself (which is good, because some really nasty things happen to the people around her). But she’s also plagued by holes in her memory, which aren’t helped by the fact that she’s the namesake of a famous traitor…or could she be the traitor, herself?
Five novels followed in the “Kencyr” series, the last one (Honor’s Paradox) being due out this December.
Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword (1982) is a bit more simplistic, in the vein of “Mary Sue Got Married and Had Magical Adventures,” though it’s still good fun. Plus, it has a really stirring cover of a sword-bearing, veiled woman on a horse. Think of the plot of Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik, as written by Rudyard Kipling, where the upright, pseudo-British heroine gets to become a warrior princess with an awesome sword, a faithful horse, and a really hot-and-dashing desert boyfriend (who happens to be her king and boss). A prequel, The Hero and the Crown, followed in 1984.
Sadly, Joanna Russ never turned her Alyx stories into novels, but she did put out an anthology of short stories (The Adventures of Alyx, 1983) which included almost all of the Alyx stories and her now-famous futuristic swashbuckling novella, Picnic on Paradise (1968). Most of them appeared in the late 1960s. Alyx is a snarky thief and cutthroat, just making a living in Bronze Age Tyre. Like Cherryh’s Gate series, Alyx’s world is largely historical sci-fi, with most of what she does being explainable by very advanced science (except for the last story, “A Game of Vlet” (1974), about a magical chessboard), and Alyx is not your typical sensitive young lady. She’s not above killing to get what she wants, or what she needs.
“A Game of Vlet,” the only Alyx story missing from The Adventures of Alyx, appears in The Zanzibar Cat.
Xena: Warrior Princess and her sisters
I can’t really complete even a short overview of feminist Sword and Sorcery without having a look at television and film. We owe a lot to the formidable Sandahl Bergman, who appeared as the reckless Queen of Thieves, Valeria, in Conan the Barbarian (from 1982, not the stupid recent version); the megalomaniacal, lesbian Queen Gedren in Red Sonja (1984); and the post apocalyptic, eponymous swordswoman in She (1982). Bergman’s wild cackle to Conan (“D’you want to live forever?! Ahahahahahaaaa!”), as she leaped off a cliff into a moat during an escapade, indelibly engraved her as a warrior young women wanted to be.
She-Ra: Princess of Power (1985-7) was the tough sister of He-Man. Initially a bad girl, she turned out to have been kidnapped as a child and brainwashed against He-Man, both of them unaware of their shared parentage. Once her heritage was revealed to her, she teamed up with her brother, gaining her own cool sword, animal sidekick/mount, TV-series, and toy line.
Lucy Lawless first appeared as the Amazon Lysia in the inauspiciously sexist TV-movie, Hercules and the Amazon Women (1994). When Hercules: The Legendary Journeys became a syndicated TV-series, Lawless appeared as another throwaway character, Lyla, early in 1995, before returning as Xena in a two-part episode, “The Warrior Princess,” a few weeks later. This being the early days of the Internet, there weren’t all that many places to find spoilers on shows, so it wasn’t clear at the time what would happen to her character. She seemed like the stereotypical bad girl who would either die at the hands of the Hero, be converted by love for him and die at the hands of one of his enemies, or survive to come back and snark at him another day, properly subdued. Imagine the joy of female fans when she not only turned good and got to bang Hercules, keep her tough fighting skills, and live, but she even got her own TV show in the fall. Well…damn, girl!
At the time, nobody thought the show would make it because nobody (read: male fans) “liked” warrior women as protagonists, and here was a tough ex-evil warlord on a redemption quest, with her cute fem sidekick. Cue lots of women kicking ass and lesbian subtext, some of it not-so-subtextual. Six seasons and 134 episodes later, with Buffy bringing in the female vampire hunters, Majors Carter and Kira representing the military on Stargate SG-1 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a few cute, ass-kicking sorceresses on shows like The Adventures of Sinbad, we’d mostly gotten beyond that dumb idea.
Sadly, Sword and Sorcery started to peter out around the turn of the millennium, as young women turned their fantasies to vampires and werewolves and other horror tropes. Enter Buffy; exit Xena. But it had still been a good run.
Possessing a quixotic fondness for difficult careers, Paula Stiles has driven ambulances, taught fish farming for the Peace Corps in West Africa and earned a Scottish PhD in medieval history, studying Templars and non-Christians in Spain. She has also sold fiction to Strange Horizons, Writers of the Future, Jim Baen’s Universe, Shine, Futures, Black Gate’s “Warrior Woman” issue, and other markets, as well as a co-written supernatural mystery novel, Fraterfamilias. She is Editor in Chief of the Lovecraft/Mythos ‘zine Innsmouth Free Press, as well as co-editor of the anthologies Historical Lovecraft, Candle in the Attic Window, and the upcoming Future Lovecraft. You can find her on Twitter (@thesnowleopard) and Facebook, or at: http://thesnowleopard.net.