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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

"a fascinating synthesis of horror, adventure, and imagination. . . the common motif is a universe in which magic works and an individual may kill according to his personal code. When the universe is effectively envisioned and the characters are convincingly realized, epic fantasy [sword and sorcery] can command the reader's attention on multiple levels of enjoyment. When the universe is a cardboard stage set and the characters comic book stereotypes, the result is cliché ridden melodrama."(1)

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):

We call a story sword and sorcery when it is an action tale, derived from the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land, age, or world of the author's invention--a milieu in which magic actually works and the gods are real--a story, moreover, which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil.

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.

. . . Sword-and-Sorcery focuses on the darker, more sinister and often brutal nature of that struggle [with supernatural forces]. The emphasis is almost always on the might of the sword as contrasted with the power of magic. The protagonist is frequently strong, clever and resourceful, but he (or she) can also be savage, barbaric and brutally ambitious to the point where he often negates his 'goodness.' His heroic challenges repeatedly find him in lost worlds (nearly always tribal or feudal) where the laws of science and reason have been replaced by mysticism and the occult. While he doesn't necessarily deserve to triumph over these forces, the hero's physical courage and tenacity nonetheless make the victory possible.(3)

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

. . . is the name of a class of stories laid, not in the world as it is or was or will be, but as it ought to have been to make a good story. The tales collected under this name are adventure-fantasies, laid in imaginary prehistoric or medieval worlds, when (it's fun to imagine) all men were mighty, all women were beautiful, all problems were simple, and all life was adventurous. In such a world, gleaming cities raise their shining spires against the stars; sorcerors cast sinister spells from subterranean lairs; baleful spirits stalk thickets; and the fate of kingdoms is balanced on the bloody blades of broadswords brandished by heroes of preternatural might and valor.(4)

Escapist Literature and Hidden Subtext

L. Sprague de Camp almost always emphasized sword and sorcery as a means to entertain:

The purpose of heroic fantasy is neither to solve the problems of the steel industry, nor to expose defects in the foreign-aid program, nor to expound the questions of poverty or intergroup hostility. It is to entertain. It is escape reading in which one escapes clear out of the real universe. But, come to think of it, these tales are no more "unreal" than the many whodunnits wherein, after the stupid police have fallen over their own big feet, the brilliant amateur--a private detective, a newspaper reporter, or a little old lady--steps in and solves the crime.(5)

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:

Respected literary critics and distinguished novelists and otherwise intelligent educators tend to look askance as such reading-matter. The man who lives next door--perhaps even your wife--is amused and more than a little contemptuous to find you reading such a book as this one. To them it seems childish for a grown man of intelligence and intellectual curiousity to want to read about dragons, knights, witches, and magic rings. They call such stories "fairy-tales"--as if the term of itself carried a derogatory connotation!--and seem to be infuriated that an adult could waste his time with such stuff. After all, they argue, everyone knows dragons are not real, there are no knights or witches these days and magic rings do not work. . .

We read fantasy not so much to escape from life (that is one of their labels, "escapist reading") but to enlarge our spectrum of life-experience, to enrich it and to extend the range of our experience into regions we can never visit in the flesh. For fantasy is not all airy-fairy nonsense, it can be deadly serious and deeply meaningful. Of course it is true that dragons do not exist (alas!): but the Dragon is not just a king-sized crocodile to us--it is a hieroglyph of the imagination, and it symbolizes the terror and beauty and awe of that side of nature we call The Destroyer. And of course there are no more real witches--there probably never were, at least not the bent, malefic crones of the Brothers Grimm--but Evil is real enough, and all too common, and we learn and savor something of its nature through the figure of the Witch. And perhaps there are no more real knights, no pure and noble heroes of selflessness and strength. But heroes and nobility and unselfish courage do exist, and it is good to be reminded of the fact through so glittering and romantic a symbol. And as for magical talismans, I thank whatever gods may be that the world is still rich in Magic. I own such a talisman myself. It is a little ceramic figure of a dog the size of your thumb-nail. It is only a dime-store jimcrack, but I would not sell it for a hundred times its value. I picked it up in my backyard when I was about five years old: I found it on the afternoon I came running home, filled with the thrilling news that on that day I had learned how to spell cat and dog. To me, that worthless little figure is a magic key. I associate it with the opening-up of the most enchanted world I know--the world of books. For me, the chipped little china dog is embued with glowing and wonderous associations. And that is Magic!

So in the reading of fantasy we deepen and enrich our life-experience, for we are dealing, not with imaginary things which do not exist, but with gigantic and eternal realities which are among the deepest and most meanigful things in life.(6)

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:

What sets the Conan stories apart, however, is the distinct sensation that the thrill of adventure in these stories is but a mask, that it is in fact never really possible to forget the grim realities of the world. Conan's Hyborian Age began with a cataclysm and ended with another cataclysm. Whatever the Hyborians--and Conan--can accomplish, has no meaning at all in the final analysis, and is eventually bound to destruction and oblivion. Human life and empires are equally transient in Howard. Civilization is not the final phase of human development; it may be an "inevitable consequence" of that development, but it is a transitory state: civilizations are bound to wither and decay, eventually to be swept over by conquering hordes of savages or barbarians who will themselves, after a time, become civilized. . .(7)

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?

Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich justice of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.(8)

Writer and editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson had this to say about Howard and his school of direct imitators:

Howard's work is admirable; he was surprisingly well-read, and invested his stories with the hodge-podge of an amateur historian or Harold Lamb fan, creating something primal, evocative, intriguing. Stylistically, he was weak. The dozen-score imitators of Howard have tended to capture the weakness of his stye, but not the primal thread of his limited though worthwhile heroic vision--his, shall we say, pathos.(9)

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.

The Swords of Lankhmar glitters and shimmers and dances. It cheerfuly plays with the conventions of the genre (a genre, Sword and Sorcery, that the stories of Fafhrd and the Mouser helped to create and to name), it toys with them as a cat plays with a terrified mouse. The book contains swordplay and dragons, dead gods and magical transformations, wise wizards and brave heroes and beautiful women --the trappings of routine fantasy, but all handled with an ironic elegance that leaves this novel with the same relationship to the usual supermarket fantasy that a black panther does to a stray kitten: it's the same class of thing, to be sure, but still. . .(10)

Sexism

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.



Conclusion

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."


End Notes










1. Wagner, Karl. "Foreword." Red Nails. Robert E. Howard. New York: Berkley. 1977.

















2. Carter, Lin. "Of Swordsmen and Sorcerors." Flashing Swords #1. Lin Carter, ed.New York: Dell. 1973.









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.








4. de Camp, L. Sprague. "Heroic Fantasy." Swords and Sorcery. L. Sprague de Camp, ed. New York: Pyramid Books. 1963.


















5. de Camp, L. Sprague. "Introduction." Conan of the Isles. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. New York: Ace. 1968.

















6. Carter, Lin. "Diana's Foresters." The Young Magicians. Lin Carter, ed. New York: Ballantine. 1969.














7. Louinet, Patrice. "Introduction." The Coming of Conan. Robert E. Howard. New York: Del Rey. 2002.

8. Howard, Robert E. "The Queen of the Black Coast." The Coming of Conan. Robert E. Howard. New York: Del Rey. 2002.















9. Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. "Introduction." Heroic Visions. Jessica Amanda Salmonson, ed. New York: Ace. 1983.

















10. Gaiman, Neil. "Introduction." Return to Lankhmar. Fritz Leiber. White Wolf Publishing. 1997.







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