by Ryan Harvey
with Andy Beau, John C. Hocking, Bill King,
and Howard Andrew Jones
ca. 700-600 B.C.E.
A copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh is archived in the Library of
Asshurbanipal in Assyria. The story dates back to the second
millennium B.C.E. Its tale of a mighty hero-king battling monsters and
going on a quest to find the secret of immortality contains many
elements essential to what will later be termed "sword-and-sorcery."
One of the first surviving stories of civilization.
ca. 540 B.C.E.
According to tradition, Pisistratus, the Tyrant of Athens, orders the
recording of "standard" versions of two lengthy orally-circulating
epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. A probably
legendary bard named Homer receives credit for both poems, which had
achieved their basic forms during the 8th century. The poems form the
basis of the Western literary tradition. The Odyssey, in
particular, contains standard elements of fantasy adventure: a
wandering hero, an encounter with a seductive sorceress, the
outwitting of monsters, and a battle to save the hero's beloved.
Probable date of the composition of The Argonautica
(attributed to "Apollonius of Rhodes"), which tells the story of Jason
and the quest for the Golden Fleece, another quintessential fantasy
adventure story that will influence many future authors.
Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro ("Virgil") composes the epic Latin
poem The Aeneid, combining elements of The Iliad and
The Odyssey to tell the adventures of Aeneas, mythical
founder of the Roman People. The poem contains many similar fantasy
elements from the two earlier works.
Conjectural date for the writing of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem
Beowulf, concerning a Scandinavian king who battles the
monster Grendel, Grendel's Dam, and a fire lizard. The long poem is
the first identifiable work of literature in the English language.
The Icelandic Volsunga Saga is recorded, although the story
dates from far earlier. The tale of the hero Sigurd, his slaying of
the dragon Fafnir, and his romance with Brynhild, will have an almost
incalculable affect on modern fantasy writers, especially William
Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and Poul Anderson. The
story also forms the basis of the German epic The
In London, printer William Caxton posthumously publishes Sir Thomas
Malory's collection of Arthurian romances, Le Morte D'Arthur.
Although poems about Arthur have existed for centuries, Malory's
version "standardizes" the story and forms the basis of most versions
up to the present day.
The first staging of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. The
play, about a shipwreck on a fantastic island, contains a sorcerer, an
obedient magical servant, and a rebellious monster. The play shows a
definite turn toward the fantastic in English drama and the genesis of
a new dramatic genre.
The first true historical novel, Sir Walter Scott's Waverly,
sees print. More swashbuckling stories will flow from Scott's pen,
including the more famous Ivanhoe and The
The most famous swashbuckling novel of all time, Alexandre Dumas's
The Three Musketeers, appears serially in the French magazine
The first complete performance of the four operas that compose Der
Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner is held in the Bavarian
town of Bayreuth. Wagner based the opera cycle on the story told in
The Volsunga Saga and it is at the time the most ambitious
presentation of sword-and-sorcery material in a medium aside from the
Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesota congressman, completes his work of
pseudo-science, Atlantis: The Antediluvan World, suggesting
that Atlantis really existed and supported an advanced culture. This
begins the still-prevalent fascination with the fictitious lost
continent that runs through much of sword-and-sorcery.
H. Rider Haggard, an English novelist already famous for his
bestselling adventure novel King Solomon's Mines, publishes
the fantasy novel She, which will influence many authors of
the "Lost Civilization" genre.
Sir Richard Francis Burton completes his sixteen-volume version of
The Arabian Nights, a compilation of Arabian, Persian, and
Indian legends that coalesced between the 9th and 14th centuries. The
stories of magic, djinni, curses, quests, strange islands, monsters,
and fabulous voyages captivate the imagination of the English-speaking
Publication of H. Rider Haggard's Viking adventure novel Eric
Brighteyes. It is a modern work written in an older style, which
Haggard composed after consultation with William Morris, a translator
of Norse sagas. Many consider it one of Haggard's finest works.
William Morris, printer, designer, and early English socialist,
publishes The Well at World's End and The Wood Beyond the
World, the first contemporary fantasy novels to use a
'secondary-world' setting. Most historians of speculative fiction
consider this the beginning of modern fantasy literature.
Irishman Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Lord Dunsany,
after a failed attempt at politics, publishes his first work of
fantasy, The Gods of Pegana. Under the name Lord Dunsany, he
will become the most important British fantasist of the first half of
English author Edwin L. Arnold publishes Gulliver of Mars,
an early planetary romance about adventures on a Mars filled with
ancient races. Although quaintly Victorian, it will have a large
influence on the planetary romances and science-fantasy swashbucklers
that will follow.
The American Edgar Rice Burroughs, after failing at various other
careers, turns to writing and ignites the planetary romance (sometimes
called sword-and-planet) genre when All-Story serializes his
first adventure of John Carter of Mars: Under the Moons of
Mars (later published in book form as A Princess of
Mars). The constant action and wild science-fiction/fantasy
concepts practically recreate pulp magazine writing overnight.
Lord Dunsany publishes his fantasy story collection, The Book of
Rafael Sabatini's The Sea Hawk, an adventure story about
pirates, quickly turns into an international bestseller. Sabatini's
other swashbuckling novels, especially 1922's Captain Blood,
will meet with further success and spawn multiple imitators and
popular film versions.
The first appearance of Harold Lamb's swashbuckling warrior, Khlit the
Cossack, in the pages of Adventure. Lamb's vivid pacing,
somber tone, and exotic backgrounds will influence a young Robert E.
Howard. Today the Khlit tales are among the earliest serial adventure
tales that can still be read for pleasure.
Serialized publication of A. Merritt's The Moon Pool, one of
the most successful of all scientific romances, begins in
All-Story. Many of Merritt's books deal with astonishing lost
civilizations and stalwart heroes battling to save beautiful
Publication of the satiric fantasy Jurgen: A Comedy of
Justice by James Branch Cabell. This is one of the first fantasy
novels to be banned by governments.
All Story serializes Johnston McCulley's novel The Curse
of Capistrano, introducing a swashbuckling masked hero in Old
California who goes by the name Zorro. The story is re-titled The
Mark of Zorro when published in book form.
Publication of British civil servant E. R. Eddison's fantasy epic
The Worm Ouroboros. It will achieve popularity in the 1960s
after the success of The Lord of the Rings.
Weird Tales, "The Unique Magazine," first appears on
newsstands in March. J. C. Hennenberger publishes it, and Edwin Baird
edits it. This pulp magazine, during its tumultuous and difficult
thirty-year history, will offer the first on-going market for fantasy
fiction and helps start many careers.
Farnsworth Wright replaces Edwin Baird as editor of Weird
Tales after only fourteen issues. Wright's lengthy tenure will
lead to the apex of the magazine's creative output.
Publication of Lord Dunsany's most important fantasy novel, The
King of Elfland's Daughter.
A. Merritt's heroic fantasy, The Ship of Ishtar, first
published. Of all Merritt's novel, this one most closely adheres to
the modern conception of sword-and-sorcery.
Adventure, one of the top-selling pulp magazines, begins the
serialization of Tros of Samothrace by Talbot Mundy. The
classical-era swashbuckling adventure about a Greek sailor and his
fight against Rome turns into one of the most popular (and intensely
debated) stories of the time.
California poet and artist Clark Ashton Smith publishes his first
fantasy short story, "The Abominations of Yondo," in the Overland
Monthly, starting a nine-year period of critically acclaimed
fantasy short stories, most of which appear in Weird
"Spear and Fang," Texas author Robert E. Howard's first fantasy story
published in a pulp magazine, appears in Weird Tales.
Publication in Weird Tales of Robert E. Howard's "The Shadow
Kingdom," his first story featuring the Barbarian King Kull, and the
first time Howard set a story in a completely fictional fantasy
"The Phoenix on the Sword," the first of Robert E. Howard's Conan
stories, debuts in Weird Tales. Howard continues to write
more adventures of this barbarian adventurer and his exploits in the
fictitious Hyborian Age, most of which will appear in Weird
Tales over the next few years. Conan will become the template for
many sword-and-sorcery heroes to follow.
After completing the story "The Last Hieroglyph," Clark Ashton Smith
ceases writing prose fiction, only periodically dabbling in the form
for the remaining years of his life.
"Black God's Kiss" appears in Weird Tales. The story
introduces an early sword-and-sorcery heroine, the red-haired Jiriel
of Joiry. The author, C. L. Moore, is one of first women to establish
herself in the speculative fiction field.
On June 11, Robert E. Howard, foundational American author of
sword-and-sorcery, commits suicide in Cross Plains, Texas.
J. R. R. Tolkien's children's fantasy novel, The Hobbit, is
published in the U.K. Its success will eventually lead to the creation
of The Lord of the Rings.
John W. Campbell, editor of the science-fiction magazine
Astounding at Street & Smith Publications, starts a fantasy
magazine to compete with Weird Tales, called Unknown
and later Unknown Worlds.
"Two Sought Adventure" (later re-titled "The Jewels in the Forest")
appears in Unknown. The story introduces Fritz Leiber's
sword-and-sorcery heroic duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and adds a
level of sly, satiric comedy to the genre. Leiber will fitfully write
further adventures of the duo for the rest of his life.
Donald Wandrei and August Derleth create Arkham House Publishers to
keep alive the writing from Weird Tales. The company survives
to this day.
Due to his increasing Parkinson's Disease, Farnsworth Wright steps
down from editing Weird Tales in April. Dorothy McIlwraith
War paper shortages force the closure of Campbell's Unknown Worlds.
Jack Vance's The Dying Earth is published after years of
rejection. This fascinating collection contains jewel-like,
genre-bending tales of adventure set in a far future when the Earth is
in its final days. The work shows the influence of James Branch Cabell
and Clark Ashton Smith, but with a unique voice. The book has remained
in print ever since and marks the start of Vance's prolific career.
Gnome Press publishes in hardcover Robert E. Howard's only completed
novel, The Hour of the Dragon, under the title Conan the
Conqueror. This leads to a whole series reprinting Howard's Conan
Leigh Brackett, one of the best writers of planetary romances,
publishes her classic Martian swashbuckling-adventure, The Sword
In September, Weird Tales, burdened with debt, publishes its
last issue. Other publications will later revive the magazine's name,
but this ends the official run of Weird Tales as a pulp
Poul Anderson's dark sword-and-sorcery novel based on Nordic sources,
The Broken Sword, is published in a small run. Although it
attracts little attention at the time, it will have a tremendous
effect on later writers, especially Michael Moorcock. Anderson will go
on to a career writing science fiction, although he continues to write
Viking tales when he can.
Allen & Unwin releases the first volume of J. R. R. Tolkien's epic
fantasy The Lord of the Rings (two later volumes will follow
in the next year). Sales are slow but steady at first.
Death of Lord Dunsany (October 25).
Steve Reeves stars as the eponymous hero in the Italian film
Hercules. This begins the genre of the sword-and-sandal movie
series ("peplum" in Italian) starring bodybuilding champions and made
principally by Italian filmmakers shooting in Spanish locations. The
series lasts for approximately the next ten years. Steve Reeves and
these movies greatly influence future sword-and-sorcery actor
Ray Harryhausen's swashbuckling and monster and magic-filled fantasy
movie, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, turns into one of the
surprise hits of the year. This starts a series of fantasy films
produced by Harryhausen and his partner Charles H. Schneer which
continue until 1981. The best of these, Jason and the
Argonauts (1964) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974),
remain popular fantasy movies today.
Fritz Leiber first suggests the use of the term "sword-and-sorcery" to
Michael Moorcock as a way of distinguishing the particular sub-genre
of fantasy in which they write.
Science-Fantasy Magazine publishes the first stories of
Michael Moorcock's doomed and brooding hero, Elric of Melniboné.
Death of Clark Ashton Smith (August 14).
Michael Moorcock's novel The Eternal Champion introduces the
concept of the multi-incarnation sword-and-sorcery hero that will run
through much of his fantasy fiction.
Ballantine Books releases the first authorized editions of J. R. R.
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in paperback in the U.S. This
starts the phenomenal worldwide success of the book and the
invigoration of fantasy as a viable publishing genre.
Lancer Books releases Conan the Adventurer (with a cover by
Frank Frazetta), the first of a series of paperbacks collecting
Howard's Conan stories. The success of these books in the wake of the
popularity of The Lord of the Rings further fuels the
sword-and-sorcery publishing boom.
John Jakes, later author of mainstream American history novels,
releases the novel Brak the Barbarian, the first in a series
about his Conan-influenced hero.
Gardner F. Fox's Kothar—Barbarian Swordsman and Lin Carter's
Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria (expanded from the shorter
The Wizard of Lemuria) appear, beginning two of the most
sustained and imitative Conan-influenced series and signaling a
highpoint in the literary influence of Robert E. Howard's
Lin Carter begins editing the "Adult Fantasy Series" for Ballantine
Books. The anthologies in this series reprint sword-and-fantasy
stories from the pulps and earlier. Under the banner of a mainstream
publisher, Carter is able to bring the works of virtually forgotten
fantasy authors to the general reading public. Without this series,
stories by Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, William Morris, and
others might possibly have never reached a new generation of readers.
The start of a novel series by "Jeffrey Lord" (a publisher's
house-name used by several authors) about a British secret agent who
is transported to a new dimension in each book. In twenty-six of the
thirty-seven books, the dimensions are pre-industrial and the weapons
used are swords and other bladed weapons. These stories have
similarities to the planetary romance genre, substituting different
dimensions for alien planets. The series runs throughout the 1970s.
Fritz Leiber's novella Ill Met in Lankhmar, detailing the first real meeting between Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, wins the Hugo science fiction award.
Roy Thomas (writer) and Barry Windsor-Smith (artist) start the Marvel
comic Conan the Barbarian, based on Robert E. Howard's
character. The popularity of this comic and its spin-offs will lead to
a resurgence of interest in Conan throughout the decade.
Publication of Karl Edward Wagner's Darkness Weaves with Many
Shades (later shortened to Darkness Weaves), his first
novel of the immortal warrior Kane.
In Issue #23 of Conan the Barbarian, Thomas and Windsor-Smith
introduce the red-haired adventuress Red Sonja (based loosely on a
Howard heroine named Red Sonya), who will spawn her own
The first volume of Lin Carter's Flashing Swords anthology
showcases the work of the members of SAGA (The Sword-and-Sorcery Guild
Death of J.R.R. Tolkien (September).
The first appearance of Imaro, whom Charles Saunders has said (in an interview here) he "specifically created as the brother who could kick Tarzan's ass." The first Imaro story was snapped up by Lin Carter for the Year's Best Fantasy series in 1975 and other tales of the mighty warrior followed swiftly, including an ill-fated series of novels published by DAW in the '80s. Imaro is memorable not just because was the first real non-white sword and sorcery hero; the stories are well crafted and imbued with a distinct sense of place, fast-paced and exciting adventures that deserve a wider audience.
Gary Gygax and David Arneson release through Gygax's company, Tactical
Studies Rules (TSR), a fantasy gaming system called Dungeons &
Dragons. Borrowing heavily from popular fantasy writers, the game
will evolve into the first role-playing game (RPG) and create a new
genre. D&D and sword-and-sorcery will become synonymous in
the 1980s, and the game introduces many young players to the genre,
and eventually spawns its own successful novel-publishing division.
Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead takes the swashbuckling
historical—blended with sword-and-sorcery—to the mainstream and the
The first volume of Andrew J. Offutt's paperback anthology, Swords
Against Darkness, collects brand-new tales of
Leigh Brackett dies soon after completing the first draft of the
screenplay of what many consider the ultimate planetary romance film:
The Empire Strikes Back.
Robert Asprin's Thieves World anthology begins the first
"shared world" series set in a sword-and-sorcery milieu. Contributors
include Poul Anderson, Andrew J. Offutt, Lynn Abbey, and Hugo-winning
science-fiction author Joe Haldeman.
Barry Sadler, a former Green Beret soldier in Vietnam, begins his
Casca series. This series tells of the adventures of Casca Longinius,
the Roman soldier who pierced Christ's side at the Crucifixion. Cursed
to immortality, he fights for various armies and civilizations
throughout history. These swashbuckling adventures follow a single
warrior through history's many wars and battles.
The release of the movie Conan the Barbarian from Universal
Pictures, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John Milius.
The smash success of the film ignites Schwarzenegger's career and
leads to a flood of low-budget sword-and-sorcery imitator films
throughout the first half of the decade.
After the suicide of her son Irving Pulling, Patricia Pulling begins a
crusade against Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy
role-playing games for their allegedly 'evil' influence on children
and supposed—but unsubstantiated—role in her son's death. This starts
a nearly decade-long parental mistrust of fantasy and sword-in-sorcery
in general, mostly fueled by urban legends and unsupported paranoia
that the genre leads youths into practicing black magic and joining
Tor Books begins a series of Conan novels by new authors to the genre.
This series will be continue until 1996, totaling forty-one books of
varying quality. Robert Jordan, who will later become a major name in
epic fantasy with his "Wheel of Time" series, writes the first seven
of the Tor Conan novels.
Michael Shea wins the World Fantasy Award with his short story collection Nifft the Lean, an adventurous thief in an invented, fantastical world. While Shea's moody, ornate style takes far more cues from Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, and to some extent Leiber than it does from Robert E. Howard, this work is the first sword and sorcery collection ever so honored.
Century, a UK book firm, publishes David Gemmell's Legend which remains in print as of this writing. Gemmell quickly rises to bestseller status in the United Kingdom. He is slower to catch on in the United States, where publishers seem gun shy of sword and sorcery, but once his work is picked up by Del Rey he develops a loyal following. Gemmell is perhaps the only writer earning his living solely with sword and sorcery who writes actively through the eighties, nineties, and into the new millennium. His work is best known for his flawed, reluctant aging heroes and action-packed battle scenes.
The failure of a movie adaptation of Red Sonja, starring
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brigitte Neilsen, signals the end of the
sword-and-sorcery movie craze.
Death of Fritz Leiber (September).
May: The success of Ridley Scott's Roman action picture,
Gladiator, re-ignites interest in historical swashbuckler
Death of Poul Anderson (July). One of his last novels is a
Scandinavian epic closely imitating the Icelandic sagas: Mother of
In December, Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring
reaches theaters. This first of three films comprising an adaptation
of J. R. R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings meets with
massive global success. The three films will gross over $3 billion
worldwide, and the final installment receives eleven Oscars (each one
it was nominated for), including Best Picture. The success of the
films increases sales of fantasy novels and begins a flood of
fantasy-themed movie projects.
In January Dark Horse Comics brings Conan back to comic books in a
series that discards Marvel's work and begins the saga anew. The
initial issues, authored by Kurt Busiek (who enjoyed critical success
as an author of Marvel's The Avengers), meet with tremendous