Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Sword and Sorcery Cliche No. 1: The Ming the Merciless Haircut [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I am currently re-reading John Jakes's entire Brak the Barbarian saga, and I was struck by an odd thought. Why do wizards in sword-and-sorcery always dress like Ming the Merciless? In "The Unspeakable Shrine," Brak meets his nemesis, Septegundus, the Amyr of Evil and high priest of Yob-Haggoth:
And from the black portal silently glided the Amyr of Evil upon Earth...The man was not of overwhelming stature. He was clad in a plain black robe with voluminous sleeves into which his hands were folded. His pate was closely shaven, his nose aquiline, his lips thin. His chin formed a sharp point, and the upper parts of his ears were pointed, too. His eyes were large, dark, staring, nearly all pupil. Very little white showed. He had no eyelids. Evidently they had been removed by a crude surgical procedure. Light pads of scar tissue had encrusted above the sockets which held eyes that never closed.
Septegundus is far from an anomaly. He is the stereotypical sword-and-sorcery wizard. Bald, weird-looking, powerful, with evil eyes. Compare him to Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings:
An old man was driving it all alone. He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf. He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.
Tolkien derived Gandalf's look from the Scandinavian tales of Odin who traveled in the guise of "The Grey God," a man in a wide-brimmed hat dressed in grey. The Ming stereotype is coming from a different lineage, the gothics.

The horror tradition in fiction begins in England with The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole. These novels, especially those of Ann Radcliffe, feature creepy houses, lost heirs, fake monsters, and a lot of shocks for shock sake. This tradition would eventually dissolve into other forms of storytelling, including detective and mystery fiction and the psychological horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Do they feature bald-headed wizards? Not really. Though Ambrosio from MG Lewis's The Monk (1796) is certainly the most influential of all gothic characters:
He was a Man of noble port and commanding presence. His stature was lofty, and his features uncommonly handsome. His Nose was aquiline, his eyes large black and sparkling, and his dark brows almost joined together. His complexion was of a deep but clear Brown; Study and watching had entirely deprived his cheek of colour. Tranquillity reigned upon his smooth unwrinkled forehead; and Content, expressed upon every feature, seemed to announce the Man equally unacquainted with cares and crimes. He bowed himself with humility to the audience: Still there was a certain severity in his look and manner that inspired universal awe, and few could sustain the glance of his eye at once fiery and penetrating. Such was Ambrosio, Abbot of the Capuchins, and surnamed, 'The Man of Holiness'.
So how did the bald look find its way into sword-and-sorcery? You can thank Weird Tales. You have to remember that sword-and-sorcery as Robert E Howard created it was half fantasy and half horror. He had to sell these stories to Farnsworth Wright after all, and WT was a horror pulp. In the stories that Howard wanted to sell to Adventure (Stories like "By This Axe I Rule" or "Kings of the Night") he drops almost all the horror trimmings, writing something closer to a Harold Lamb or Talbot Mundy tale. He was a professional and he wanted to crack more prestigious magazines.

So, Weird Tales is the gateway. Howard introduces Thoth-Amon in "The Phoenix on the Sword" (December 1932) and this evil Stygian priest doesn't bear the look (not yet, later in the Marvel Comics and the L Sprague de Camp pastiches he would get the buzz cut.) Even though Thoth-Amon didn't get much description, his activities are similar to another character, Fu Manchu:
Of him it had been fitly said that he had a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan. Something serpentine, hypnotic, was in his very presence. Smith drew one sharp breath, and was silent. Together, chained to the wall, two mediaeval captives, living mockeries of our boasted modern security, we crouched before Dr. Fu-Manchu.
Robert E Howard had written of his own version of Fu named Kathulos of Egypt in "Skull-Face" (October-December 1929):
The hands--but, oh God, the face! A skull to which no vestige of flesh seemed to remain but on which taut brownish-yellow skin grew fast, etching out every detail of that terrible death's-head. The forehead was high and in a way magnificent, but the head was curiously narrow through the temples, and from under penthouse brows great eyes glimmered like pools of yellow fire. The nose was high-bridged and very thin; the mouth was a mere colorless gash between thin, cruel lips. A long, bony neck supported this frightful vision and completed the effect of a reptilian demon from some medieval hell.
Howard, after Rohmer, is clearly working in a tradition descended from Otranto, with men reborn from Ancient Asia, whether China or Egypt, the cradle of mysterious wisdom and evil.

To make this even clearer, there are two major undercurrents in the gothics that truly pin down the evil wizard type. The first is that the underlying plot of gothic stories is about something from the past terrorizing the present. In Otranto, this is the specter of the giant knight who crushes Manfred's heir with a helmet, steps out of paintings, and ultimately destroys him. In later years this can be seen in horror fiction in any story in which an ancient object haunts a family like in "The Stone Idol" by Seabury Quinn, or in ghost stories like MR James' "Lost Hearts." In mystery fiction this is the crime that haunts the perpetrator such as the classic Wilkie Collins story The Moonstone (1868) or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock tale, "The Adventure of the Crooked Man" (The Strand, July 1893). In the noir branch, it's the unknown crime in Cornell Woolrich's The Black Curtain (1941). In sword-and-sorcery (and other forms of fantasy), this is Bilbo's Ring or the ancient snake worshippers of Set, who harken back to the Snake Men of Prehistory. It can be any object, book, knowledge, god, or monster that returns centuries later. And that's our sorcerer buddy. He is either such a person, or works for such a deity, or possesses such an object. They buy into the idea that ancient power can make them powerful now. It is up to the barbarian hero to thwart such ideas.

The second theme that the gothics give us is the idea that old things are evil and new things are our savior. This is immediately evident when you look at the hero, Brak:
The mendicant seemed to hunch in fright cowed by the figure before him: the bigger man plainly was an outlander, a huge, yellow-headed giant whose hair was plaited in a single long braid that hung down his back. A glossy fur cloak and cowl around the barbarian’s shoulders reflected the torchglare dimly. The big man was naked save for this fur and a garment of lion’s hide about his hips.
Brak is young, well-maned, and virile. The female characters are usually voluptuous, fecund, and available. Villains such as Ariane are usually too beautiful, hinting at their deceit, and often prove to be withered crones or monsters when their magic is dispelled. The wizard is the exact opposite to Brak, old-looking, bald, and with eyes that contain evil powers. The baldness is important, for it is a sign of age, impotence and decay. In gothic texts, the authors often suggested that the Roman Catholic religion was likewise decrepit and oppressive; old, but evil. The gothics weren't anti-religion, just anti-Catholic, for the hero (no longer disguised as a peasant, returned to his true lordship) marries the heroine in a good Anglican church, with a bright future ahead. The evil, old dude gets his comeuppance and if he has time says something akin to "And I would have gotten away with to too, if it weren't for you meddling kids." This kind of shorthand works for all kinds of villains and comics certainly have had their share, such as The Red Skull in Captain America.

Lastly, to cement the point, let's consider Elric of Melnibone. Michael Moorcock created Elric as a kind of anti-Conan. Instead of strong, he is a weak albino. Instead of handsome, he is freakish. In fact, Moorcock uses many of the villain characteristics to create his anti-hero. He is haunted by his sword, Stormbringer, who must be fed souls to keep the weak body going. This sword is the object from the past that haunts his present, dooming his future. In many ways, Elric is the image of the sorcerer, not the swordsman. In some ways but not all. Elric is not bald but has a flowing white mane. He is also resourceful, able to have companions, and is capable of love. Moorcock created a hero who is halfway between the two types. This should not be surprising when you consider one of his influences was Mervyn Peake, who wrote the Gormenghast trilogy, undoubtedly the most gothic of the fantasy sagas. Unlike Tolkien, Moorcock is consciously choosing to work inside the gothic tradition, though bending and stretching it to his own ends. This opening of gothic elements helped allow sword-and-sorcery to evolve past the Howardian formula. Series like Gene Wolfe's The Book of New Sun and Samuel R Delaney's Neveryona play with these elements in fresh ways. (Though read any Conan novel by Robert Jordan, Leonard Carpenter, or others and you will find any number of baldies trying to resurrect ancient gods. Even worse, consider Skeletor from The Masters of the Universe! Alas, some like the formulas as is).

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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