Defining Sword and Sorcery
Howard Andrew Jones
Those who have only a passing familiarity with fantasy fiction are apt to use the terms "fantasy" and "sword and sorcery" as though they are interchangeable. While sword and sorcery is certainly a type of fantasy fiction (as a sports car is a type of automobile), the label sword and sorcery was proposed by Fritz Leiber to distinguish the genre from other fantasy.
Karl Edward Wagner, creator of the sword and sorcery hero Kane and reknowned speculative fiction editor, preferred the term epic fantasy, describing it as
Lin Carter, likewise a reknowned fantasy editor and a speculative fiction author, wrote the following in his introduction to the anthology Flashing Swords #1(2):
Carter simplifies here: he knew full well that gods weren't necessarily real in all sword and sorcery--certainly Crom never descended from upon high to aid Conan, who frequently swore by him. Dark gods and evil entities are common, however. Sorcerors conjure many a fiendish creature to confront sword and sorcery heroes. This is true to one of the genre's underlying themes--protagonists must overcome challenges with their own strengths, not through the intercession of higher powers. They must rely upon themselves and their close allies, not on deities, governments, or laws. In the strange lands and situations in which they find themselves, they themselves must impose order, sense, or justice through their own actions. Rarely is the cavalry waiting on the sidelines.
Scholar John Flynn has additional, worthwhile observations about the field that can add further clarification to this discussion.
In sword and sorcery, the supernatural is usually depicted as dark and malignant--magic users are rarely working in the interest of sword and sorcery's heroes. Magic is not the happy, easy thing it often is in fairy tales or in the stories of Harry Potter: it is most often practiced with great effort, using lengthy, sinister rituals.
The protagonists of sword and sorcery are most often common folk or barbarians struggling not for the world's sake, but for their own gain, even their own survival. Its heroes are "blue-collar," rebels against authority and the status quo, skeptical of civilization and its rulers and adherents. While the strengths and skills of sword and sorcery heroes are romanticized, it is a different sort of romance from that which casts lovely princesess, dashing nobles, and prophesied saviors as the leads in other types of fantasy. Sword and sorcery heroes face more immediate problems than those of questing kings. They are the lone gunslingers of westerns, or the wandering samurai of Japanese tradition, adventuring through the countryside to right wrongs, or simply to live another day.
Unknown or hazardous lands are an essential ingredient to the genre, and if they should chance upon inhabited lands sword and sorcery protagonists are often strangers to either the culture which they encounter, or strangers to civilization itself.
L. Sprague de Camp wrote extensively about sword and sorcery. He preferred "heroic fantasy" to Leiber's label (although, aptly enough, the following quote originates from an anthology titled Swords and Sorcery). His description captures much of the genre's flavor when he writes that sword and sorcery
Escapist Literature and Hidden Subtext
L. Sprague de Camp almost always emphasized sword and sorcery as a means to entertain:
de Camp should be excused if he sounds somewhat defensive. At the time he was writing, fantasy was seldom looked upon as something worthy of serious study. It was, after all, allegedly written only to amuse. Those who are in a place to pass judgments upon the relative merits of fiction sometimes seem to forget that such a worthy as Shakespeare did not sit pensively at his desk, clutching his quill pen in one hand while rubbing his forehead with the other, asking himself how he might best illuminate the nature of man in the forthcoming scene. He wrote to entertain his audience.
Lin Carter, de Camp's sometime collaborator, was a passionate advocate of fantasy's worth. Few were as well read in the field as Carter, and few write about the field with such eloquence, even today. Throughout his tenure as editorial consultant for Ballantine, and in many later anthologies, he was called upon to write essays about fantasy's creators as well as of fantasy fiction itself. Few times did he address the subject of fantasy's worth as completely and adroitly as he did in 1969:
de Camp is certainly right in that sword and sorcery can be escapist fun, and it is true that those who prefer a story with traditional plot structure will be far more comfortable with the genre's practictioners than with authors who write of characters wallowing in existential angst. Yet de Camp misses some of the underlying philosophical depth to sword and sorcery, depth that lay within the best texts from the very start. In the hands of its most accomplished writers, the genre is shot through with philosophical undercurrents that question the nature of mankind's place in the world, and the universe at large.
Robert E. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet, in an especially erudite essay, comments upon the deeper layers in the best yarns about the mighty Cimmerian:
Earlier in the same essay Louinet quotes Conan himself. Here, in one of the most celebrated of Conan tales, the Cimmerian pensively questions the very nature of his own existence, for a moment breaking the bond separating reader and character. Does REH mean to suggest that Conan may be aware he is a fictional character within a fictional universe?
Writer and editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson had this to say about Howard and his school of direct imitators:
It is not Howard alone who has been praised among sword and sorcery authors. Award winning writer Neil Gaiman touches upon some of the genius of another of sword and sorcery's master craftsmen in an introduction to Fritz Leiber's The Swords of Lankhmar.
It has been noted that female characters who grace the pages of sword and sorcery often serve no other purpose than to reward the male protagonist. While often true, even this accepted universal is simplistic. Sword and sorcery's progenitor, Robert E. Howard, wrote of nubile lovelies in need of rescue (though Louinet writes that this was usually when Howard was in need of a paycheck and that the best of the Conan stories are not concerned with damsels in distress). Yet Howard also wrote of brave and clever female warriors, most notable of whom was Dark Agnes, about whom we will learn more in another article. Howard's Red Sonja did not wear a chainmail bikini; she was in fact fully clad throughout the single historical novella in which she appeared, and was the brightest and toughest protagonist within it besides. Likewise, Howard's immediate successors wrote of intelligent and daring lady warriors, and one of them, Catherine L. Moore, made a woman, Jirel of Joiry, her central character. More modern authors, many of them women, have likewise turned the expected on its ear and had women assume the lead in swashbuckling fantasy.
Sword and sorcery can be mere escapist fare, and as sexist as any James Bond film. But these characteristics should not be automatically assumed, even in the work of the earliest sword and sorcery authors.
In summary, sword and sorcery is fiction set in a land different from our own, where technology is relatively primitive, allowing the protagonists to overcome their martial obstacles face-to-face. Magic works, but seldom at the behest of the genre's heroes. More often sorcery is just one more obstacle used against them and is usually wielded by villains or monsters. The landscape is exotic; either a different world, or far corners of our own. The heroes live by their cunning or brawn, frequently both. They are strangers or outcasts, rebels imposing their own justice on the wilds or the strange and decadent civilizations which they encounter. They are usually commoners or barbarians; should they hail from the higher ranks of society then they are discredited, disinherited, or come from the lower ranks of nobility (the lowest of the high). They must best fantastic dangers, monstrous horrors, and dark sorcery to earn riches, astonishing treasure, dazzlingly beautiful women, or the right to live another day. On a more technical level, sword and sorcery is crafted with traditional structure, meaning that it isn't stream of consciousness, slice of life, or any sort of experimental flavor--it has a beginning, middle, and end; a problem and solution; a climax and resolution. Most important of all, sword and sorcery moves at a headlong pace and overflows with action and thrilling adventure.
One of the most succinct and successful definitions of the genre was authored by writer Joe McCullough. Although intended to be tongue-and-cheek, it serves well: "Sword and sorcery is fantasy with dirt."
3. Flynn, John L. "Part Three: Sword and Sorcery." A Historical Overview of Heroes in Contemporary Works of Fantasy Literature. http://www.towson.edu/~flynn/swordsor.html.
8. Howard, Robert E. "The Queen of the Black Coast." The Coming of Conan. Robert E. Howard. New York: Del Rey. 2002.
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