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MIND MELD: What ‘Sword and Sorcery’ Means to Me

A few months back, we were so focused on asking people about The Best Sword & Sorcery Stories, that we overlooked a more basic question: What is it? This week, we turned to the contributors and editors of the recent publication Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword & Sorcery and asked them:

Q: How do you define the sub-genre of “Swords and Sorcery”?

Here’s what they said…

Michael Moorcock
Michael Moorcock is the author of more than 70 novels, including several series that share a common multiverse: the Cornelius Chronicles, The Dancers at the End of Time, Erekose, The Books of Corum, Hawkmoon: The Chronicles of Castle Brass, Hawkmoon: The History of the Runestaff and the classic Elric of Melnibone saga. He has also worked as an editor, most notably for 27 discontinuous years for the publication New Worlds. Moorcock has won numerous awards along the way, including these career awards: World Fantasy Award life achievement, Stoker lifetime achievement, SFWA Grand Master, SF Hall of Fame Living Inductee, and Prix Utopia.

I didn’t get this the first time around; I wrote a whole book on supernatural adventure fiction called Wizardry and Wild Romance which still probably didn’t answer the question. Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu. It seems, in fact, to have replaced the old historical melodrama in most of its aspects. Or returned to them if you look at those origins in the late Peninsula Romances which were the big news circa 1450.

Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie is a British former film editor and author of the unheroic fantasy trilogy, The First Law, and the still less heroic standalone, Best Served Cold. Even less heroic is The Heroes, due in January 2011. He has been shortlisted for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer, the British Fantasy Award, and the David Gemmell Legend Award, but cruelly denied. He lives in Bath with his wife, two daughters, and interminable building project.

It’s a tricky business, defining genre. Hugely subjective, and often coming down to quite arbitrary things that are nothing to do with content, like who publishes something, and how they present it, and where it gets shelved. The grey areas tend to be far bigger than the certainties, and often it comes down in the end to, “you know it when you see it.”

The lines between sword and sorcery, and epic fantasy, and high fantasy, and heroic fantasy, have always struck me as particularly blurry. There are probably a fair few books you could define as all four. It’s all that stuff with swords and wizards and made up names and that. But there are certainly some tendencies which I’d say might shift something toward the sword and sorcery area of the Venn diagram, if you will . . .

Sword and Sorcery stories tend to be short. Their origins are obviously in pulp magazines, where everything was in short format, but that’s tended to remain the default. A sword and sorcery novel seems almost a contradiction in terms, and those full-length books that are undoubtedly sword and sorcery (like Moorcock’s Elric and Corum) tend to be very slim, certainly compared to the behemoths of epic fantasy. They also tend to be limited in focus. They’re about a single character or a small group, usually doing something pretty small scale. It’s less about people saving the world, more about saving themselves. Or possibly making money. You don’t tend to get epic battles, you’ll see more drunken punch-ups.

Sword and Sorcery tends to feature morally ambiguous heroes – swashbuckling beefcakes like Conan, self-serving thieves like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, melancholy anti-heroes like Elric. They’re rarely motivated by the cause of righteousness. It’s more the cause of me. It’s less good against evil than one kind of scum stealing from another.

Sword and Sorcery settings tend to be seedier, grimmer, smellier, trashier, uglier, more urban places than their epic fantasy counterparts. Fewer white towers, more dark brothels. Less sweeping mountainscapes and more stinking alleyways.

Other than that, well, you’ve got to have swords. And probably sorcery. And maybe a sense of humour. Read Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. You’ll know it when you see it…

Garth Nix
Garth Nix was born in 1963 in Melbourne, Australia. A full-time writer since 2001, he has worked as a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative, bookseller, and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve. Garth’s books include the award-winning fantasy novels Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen; and the cult favourite YA SF novel Shade’s Children. His fantasy novels for children include The Ragwitch; the six books of The Seventh Tower sequence, and The Keys to the Kingdom series. More than five million copies of his books have been sold around the world, his books have appeared on the bestseller lists of The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Guardian and The Australian, and his work has been translated into 38 languages. He lives in a Sydney beach suburb with his wife and two children.

A Definition of Sword and Sorcery by Garth Nix

Golden the garments of the siren girl Luring the lusty in his studded loincloth
Forgotten is his flagon Facing the fell enchantments of the foe
Dread the demons in the darkness Soon sliced to slivers by his sword
Crazed the cohort of a god gone cuckoo Surprised to see a hero so strong
Awful the ancient’s angst When forgotten weapon widens wizand
Destructive the death-throes Fleet is their fleeing
Great is the glory It’ll soon be a story
Obvious the outcome Gold and girl gone
Tomorrow is tomorrow Think only of today

That said, this poem really only attempts to define the kind of classic S&S we know from Robert E. Howard et al and I personally think that as a sub-genre S&S can encompass many other tales, including ones that only touch on the core themes, tropes and tones. In general, I’m not one for strict definition of genres and sub-genres. I think Gary K. Wolfe said that genre boundaries are like shifting walls of fog, and I subscribe to that notion.

C.J. Cherryh
C.J. Cherry has written more than 60 books since the mid-1970s, including the Hugo Award winning novels Downbelow Station (1981) and Cyteen (1988), both set in her Alliance-Union universe. Her latest novels are Conspirator and Regenesis. Besides writing, C.J likes to travel and try new things, like fencing, riding, archery, firearms, ancient weapons, painting and video games. She also has an asteroid named after her: 77185 Cherryh.

Swords and sorcery is…

  1. …based somewhere in something remotely like history
  2. …when there are gods, or sorcery works
  3. …when there is conflict, often involving no more than survival
  4. …when the hero/heroine may or may not be on the wrong side of the law, and
  5. …when there are subgenres:
    1. temples, snakes, and virgins
    2. the idiot emperor and the evil advisor
    3. the lovelorn princess wants a way out of town
    4. retrieve the magic item.

There are many more than that, but they are generally simple stories set in a usually mythic place involving a clever hero(ine) and a reward/good outcome.

Glen Cook’s first novel, The Heirs of Babylon, appeared in 1972. He has since gone on to write many more books in several series including Garrett P.I., Dread Empire, Starfishers and Dark War. But Cook is perhaps best known for The Black Company, his epic fantasy series about a band of mercenaries. Coming up is Gilded Latten Bones, a new Garrett, P.I. novel.

I see Sword & Sorcery as a species of proletarian fiction. The heroes are working class guys, within the context of the story and mores of the time when it was written. They are guys who get stuff done but you would not want them in the drawing room for high tea because they smell bad, break things, and leave bloody messes all over. Despite their class, or lack thereof, they are not much into progressive politics, seeing that sort as easy meat.

Bill Willingham
Bill Willingham writes funnybooks, including a series called Fables, and the odd bit of prose, here and there. He was once arrested in Burlington, Wisconsin for overdue library books.

How do I define the sub-genre of Swords and Sorcery?

My best guess is: a subset of the fantasy genre (or perhaps it’s more aptly derived from what Hollywood calls the Swords and Sandals genre) that is generally darker, meaner and more vulgar in tone, in which there are both swords and sorcery at work, and in which those who wield one are generally at odds with those who employ the other. But that’s all bunkum of course, since every one of those rules have been broken in S&S stories I like, while the tale still seemed to fall within the expanse of the sub-genre. It’s low fantasy, sans unicorns, elves (unless perhaps said elves are thugs), or anything that can be described as twee. Hell, I don’t know. Luckily I don’t have to worry about such things. All I have to do is write stories I like and let others fight over how they’re to be categorized.

K.J. Parker
K.J. Parker is the author of The Fencer trilogy, The Scavenger trilogy, The Engineer trilogy as well as the standalone novels The Company and the upcoming novel The Folding Knife (2011).

What it says, essentially, on the can. I’ve always taken S&S to be shorthand for traditional fantasy, the tradition in question going right back to Beowulf and beyond. Heroic storytelling takes many forms, but it plays exceptionally well in an arena not restricted by the rules of naturalistic realism; you can have magic and dragons and stuff if you need them (I would stress the word need) to create a situation in which your hero can perform to the best of his potential as a human character worthy of the reader’s involvement. Traditional heroic fantasy allows you to plunge headlong into huge themes, inviting the reader to imagine a cast of millions and cutting-edge special effects. That’s one of its strengths; the other, of course, is its conventions.

S&S is a very formal genre, with strong, well-defined conventions; as with No drama or the Commedia del’Arte, you immediately know where you are and what’s going on. It has a wide vocabulary of archetypes (they’re only stereotypes if the writer gets them wrong) . The advantage of this is that writers can be elliptical and referential; they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.

(The advantage of S&S conventions and archetypes to a hooligan like myself, of course, is the scope they offer for creative subversion. Please note, because this is very important; you can only be subversive where there’s a strong, vigorous establishment to subvert. You can only play games with the rules if the rules are clear and widely accepted. Subversion of the rules and conventions is, of course, by no means a rejection of them. The rules and conventions are a joy and a blessing to me, because without them I couldn’t make my point. I write heroic narratives with no hero and no villain; I write about magic as a mundane tool of cynical and weary professionals. I couldn’t do that without the conventions. In the same way, the Devil is as much a part of the Establishment as the seraphim; ultimately, they all work for God and serve the same cause, albeit from radically different ends of the spectrum.)

What we call fantasy is the oldest and, I believe, the most fundamental form of literature, and S&S is only one part of fantasy, although it’s a core constituent of it, informing all the various side-shoots. It’s also a broad church; and, so long as you acknowledge the rules and conventions (which I do, as noted above, by monkeying around with them), I believe you have freedom and scope within S&S to do pretty much anything you like, always provided that it works, and that people enjoy reading it. Above all, I guess, the watchword of S&S in the 21st century has to be the dying words of the greatest proponent of fantasy in any genre; Kinde, schaf’ neues. Precisely because its roots go so deep, S&S has the strength to produce new, strange and wonderful fruit.

That said; I do have something of a problem with the swords; at least, the swords as written by most S&S authors. Actual specifications are woefully rare, but as described they tend to be way too heavy – no sword should weigh more than 3 pounds, max – and horribly balanced, with jewels set in the hilt that’d shred your hands in a fight; hardly surprising that they mostly need a bucketful of magic in order to do any good. So, you can keep your enchanted moonblades. Give me a hand-and-a-half Type 18, 32 inch blade, 5160 steel, 2lb 12oz, point of balance 4 inches from the cross, centre of percussion a handspan from the tip, no mystic runes, and absolutely, under no circumstances, not tempered in blood (a light mineral oil is your only quench for carbon steel), and I’ll be happy to fight any orc in the room.

Tanith Lee
Tanith Lee is the author of more than 70 novels and 250 short stories, a children’s picture book (Animal Castle) and many poems. Her books include The Birthgrave trilogy, the Tales From The Flat Earth series (which includes Death’s Master, winner of the August Derleth Award), The Secret Books of Paradys, The Unicorn Series, The Blood Opera Sequence, The Secret Books of Venus, the Piratica trilogy (a young adult series) as well as several short story collections. Tanith has also written two episodes of BBC science fiction series Blake’s 7. Upcoming is a new book in the Tales From The Flat Earth series.

‘Sword and Sorcery’ – what they mean to me, personally, is a large and flamboyant rescue of my sanity at an early and difficult (17 – 24) stage of my life. Other things, and other types of books were also involved. But this exotic and mind-stretching genre carried me off from a hell of over-demanding and dismal ‘normal life.’ (Frankly, I imagine, in this, I’m part of a great multitude.) Extraordinary Masters, such as Leiber and Vance, propelled me into a glittering otherwhere, in whose purlieus sword-blades sculpted life and death, intelligence outwitted both the corrupt and the evil, not to mention the merely deadly-boring, and supernatural beauty could be found often enough to keep the eye and the heart nicely polished. Leiber, of course, had a Shakespearean actor for a father, and Vance had witnessed plenty of the rare and the fabulous of this world. But enlisted by their unique storylines, their humour and sumptuous prose, these genre Gods, and others like them, saved my mental skin. I guess that must mean, then, that to me – ‘Sword and Sorcery’ represents a colossal amount.

Tim Lebbon
Tim Lebbon is a New York Times bestselling author of over thirty books, including The Island, Bar None, The Map of Moments (with Christopher Golden), Last Exit for the Lost, and The Chamber of Ten. Visit him here:

For me, sword and sorcery generally needs … swords. And sorcery. Beyond that glib answer, it’s usually grittier than epic fantasy, and will perhaps have more personal goals than the global conflicts of other fantasy novels. Anything more accurate than that is difficult to define, because I don’t generally try and compartmentalize books while I’m reading them.

James Enge
James Enge is the author of Blood of Ambrose (which made LOCUS’ Recommended Reading List for 2009) and This Crooked Way (which didn’t). His short fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Flashing Swords and Every Day Fiction. His story “The Singing Spear” appears in the Strahan & Anders edited anthology Swords and Dark Magic: the New Sword and Sorcery. His third novel, The Wolf Age is slated to appear from Pyr in October 2010. He blogs at, occasionally shows his face on Facebook, and nowadays can also be found on Twitter.

The best and pithiest definition of sword-and-sorcery is still Joe McCullough’s classic formulation, “Fantasy with dirt.” In epic fantasy, even hobbits sleep in elven palaces on their way to the ultimate showdown between Good and Evil; in S&S, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser crouch on the streets of Lankhmar and get in fights with passing monsters, then loot stray bodies for coins.

In more specific terms, I favor broad limits on the genre. If sword-and-sorcery is just Robert E. Howard’s Conan and imitations thereof, it’s not a genre it’s a kind of pastiche, like Sherlock Holmes and “Solar Pons”. And it would be weird if the original sword-and-sorcery hero, Solomon Kane, somehow didn’t count as sword-and-sorcery because he didn’t run around in a furry thong. (“Sol. Buddy. Seriously. Put some pants on; no one wants to see that.” “Sinner! I will smite thee, once I have dealt with this chafing issue.”)

But if S&S is to be distinguishable from epic fantasy, it has to have some distinguishing characteristics. It seems to me (and to many) that the hero has to be some kind of outsider, the genre equivalent of a lone gunman. He or she may become involved with other people’s problems, but they will have their own interests, and any impact on a grander plot of Good vs. Evil, empire vs. empire, human vs. rat (etc.) should be tangential, almost accidental. And there has to be magic: Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and the others in that series are wonderfully written tales of swordplay and adventure, but there’s no element of the impossible. I think that puts them in a different genre.

An element of horror seems to me to be crucial as well. Maybe here I’m falling too much under the influence of REH, but since his defining S&S stories appeared in Weird Tales, they all had some element of the weird and horrific. (That’s Old Weird. I have nothing against New Weird, when examples are pointed out to me; I’m just not sure what it is as a sub-genre.) Other classics of the genre followed suit: Moore, Leiber, Kuttner, Vance and Moorcock all enclose elements of horror and dread in their sword-and-sorcery stories.

Roger Zelazny, in a celebrated passage of the original Amber series, explains to his oblivious hero that he is writing “a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity.” (There’s no doubt that Zelazny considered the Amber series, and even Lord of Light, to be sword-and-sorcery, and for me his voice silences all doubters.) Most sword-and-sorcery doesn’t attain that level, but maybe that’s the definition to strive for.

Scott Lynch
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978, Scott Lynch is the author of the Gentleman Bastard sequence of fantasy crime novels, which began with The Lies of Locke Lamora and continues with Red Seas Under Red Skies and the forthcoming The Republic of Thieves. His work has been published in more than fifteen languages and twenty countries, and he was a World Fantasy Award finalist in the Best Novel category in 2007. Scott currently lives in Wisconsin and has been a volunteer firefighter since 2005.

First, I think it’s important to remember that there’s no right answer to this sort of question. The phrase I like to use is that all our in-genre labels are connotations without the benefit of denotations. They’re trends and tendencies, not strict and formal boundaries.

With that said, ‘swords and sorcery’ suggests to me a style of fantasy in which the protagonists tend to have a fairly high level of self-interest or even selfish interest. They may certainly find themselves saving the world, but there’s nearly always some degree of greed or personal ambition also driving the story.

It also suggests a narrative style in which world-building is deliberately nebulous and secondary to character-driven action. Richness of description tends to be valued more highly than mere plausibility– sword and sorcery milieus are places that can endure some stretching and exaggeration, often to advantages.

What I think of as sword and sorcery also tends to lack the sense of pastoral longing that one sees in Tolkien-style fantasy; the classic S&S wilderness is a place of lost ambitions, lurking dangers, and nerve-wracking mysteries rather than a numinous realm of idyllic beauty.

Lastly, one of the most interesting classic tendencies of sword and sorcery is to rarely allow magic to be a trustworthy, consequence-free practice. More often than not, it’s portrayed as something requiring sinister bargains and compromises, with many unintended and unforeseen consequences for its practitioners.

Johnathan Strahan
Jonathan Strahan co-founded Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy and worked as its co-editor and co-publisher from 1990 to 1999. He works for Locus magazine as Reviews Editor. As a freelance editor, Jonathan has edited or co-edited The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy (Volumes 1 and 2), Science Fiction: Best of 2003, The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Best Short Novels series for the Science Fiction Book Club, among many others. His latest anthologies are The Starry Rift, a collection of young adult stories by the field’s top writers; The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year and Eclipse (both now on their third volumes and available from Night Shade Books); The New Space Opera (now on its second volume, from HarperCollins and co-edited with Gardner Dozois); and Swords and Dark Magic, co-edited with Lou Anders.

I was asked this question recently and very glibly answered that it was any story that included both a sword and some act of magic. This, of course, was an instance of ridiculously oversimplifying things.

I first encountered sword and sorcery fiction in the pages of Fritz Leiber’s Swords and Deviltry. That book, and the remaining adventures of Fafhrd and the Mouser have always been the touchstone for me, and very much define the subgenre.

Still, if forced to define “sword and sorcery” I would say that it refers to adventure fantasy tale sets in an exotic secondary world that focus on the actions of a single heroic figure. The tale must encompass some elements of magic and the supernatural, as well as a lot of hand-to-hand fighting, and will often deal with matters of honor. Sword and sorcery tales will often include elements of romance as well, but the primary focus is the triumph of good over evil by the direct personal intervention of the protagonist.

There have been many, many fine examples of sword and sorcery that define the subgenre, including seminal works by Howard, Leiber, Moore, Moorcock and others. I would however point readers to Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean and Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx, both of which provide fine examples of the form.

Lou Anders
A 2010/2009/2008/2007 Hugo Award nominee, 2008 Philip K. Dick Award nominee, 2008/2006 Chesley Award winner/nominee, and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction and fantasy imprint Pyr, as well as seven critically-acclaimed anthologies, the latest being Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008) and Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008). He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, DeathRay, free inquiry, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His latest anthologies are Swords and Dark Magic, co-edited with Jonathan Strahan, and Masked!. Visit Lou online at

First a word on definitions. Genre and subgenre definitions exist as marketing categories in book stores, as a way of saying to costumers, “if you like this kind of stuff, this is the stuff you like.” That’s their primary function. The definitions are most apt when a work falls smack dab in the middle, blurs and overlaps as you approach the borderlines. Some people champion the center, others gravitate to the edges. Personally, I think it is silly not to acknowledge that good storytelling exists throughout, and good storytelling trumps definitions. It’s been said before, but is still wise to repeat, that the best genre definitions are “descriptive not proscriptive” and I agree. Remember the line from Alan Parker’s 1987 film Angel Heart? “Evil is a dunghill, Mr. Angel. Everybody climbs up on theirs to speak out against somebody else’s.” That’s how I feel about genre wars – it’s fine for a writer to limit him/herself to a set of rules; absolutely wrong for them to insist anyone else has to abide by them too. These definitions can be instructive and fun for editors, critics, and fans to debate. But when someone gets on their dunghill and starts preaching what everyone else is allowed to or forbidden to do, it’s time to head for the door.

With that caveat, Jonathan Strahan and I wrote in our introduction to Swords & Dark Magic, “Check Your Dark Lord at the Door,” that, “If high fantasy is about vast armies divided along the lines of obvious good verses ultimate evil, epic struggles to vanquish dark lords bent on world domination, then swords and sorcery is its antithesis. Smaller scale character pieces, often starring morally compromised protagonists, whose heroism involves little more than trying to save their own skins from a trap they themselves blundered into in search of spoils. Swords and sorcery is where fantasy fiction meets the western, with its emphasis on traveling swordsmen wandering into an exotic setting and finding themselves thrust into unanticipated conflicts there. As high fantasy concerns itself with warring nations and final battles, then swords and sorcery focuses on personal battles, fought in the back alleys of exotic cities, in the secret chambers of strange temples, in the depths of dark dungeons. If high fantasy is a child of The Iliad, then swords and sorcery is a product of The Odyssey.”

That’s a pretty good definition, and one that works fairly well in general terms, but lest I’m climbing on a dunghill, let’s poke it ’round the edges and make sure it doesn’t collapse.

Swords and sorcery heroes are morally compromised: Generally, but what about Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane (a Puritan) or Saladin Ahmed’s Doctor Adoulla Makhslood (a ghoul-hunter whose power descends from god)?

Swords and sorcery are traveling loners: Generally, but what of CL Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, who was a ruler of a medieval French kingdom, with an army at her command. Robert E. Howard’s second Conan story to be published in Weird Tales, “The Scarlet Citadel,” sees Conan as King of Aquilonia, where he rides into battle at the head of an army of five thousand knights.

Swords and sorcery is about small scale, personal conflicts: Generally, but see Conan above. And what about Elric of Melniboné, who often found himself in battles for the fate of a kingdom, a world or even all of the multiverse. In Stormbringer, one of the seminal S&S texts, Elric actually destroys and reboots the entire world! And Moorcock’s Hawkmoon is a player in an international conflict with an evil empire.

Swords and sorcery characters are motivated by greed: Generally, but what of Jirel of Joirey again, who as a ruler of a realm was pretty well taken care of, or James Enge’s Morlock Ambrosius, who as an alchemist can and often does make his own gold (and holds it in low regard)?

Frankly, any definition that excludes Solomon Kane, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, Conan, Jirel of Joiry, Elric of Melniboné, Hawkmoon, and Morlock Ambrosius is no definition at all. Or rather, any definition that seeks to be proscriptive is no definition. We can only say what sword and sorcery generally is, what it tends towards, not what it always is. I think it’s important to remember that the subgenre wasn’t even named until 1961 (by Fritz Leiber), and Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard died a quarter-century earlier in 1936. A great deal of the bedrock of this subgenre was carved out before anyone thought to label it. It’s always been a nebulous, shifting subgenre. We can most of us agree on the very middle of the territory, but let’s not put fences ’round the edges. Every author, editor, and, ultimately, reader, is going to have their own definition. But if it’s got a sword and it’s got sorcery, we’re probably in the neighborhood. Generally speaking.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

11 Comments on MIND MELD: What ‘Sword and Sorcery’ Means to Me

  1. Sword and sorcery fiction has been the defining form of literature in my life–and I make very little distinction between  s & s and heroic fantasy. Lord of the Rings is as much Sword and Sorcery as Two Sought Adventure, Black Colossus, or Stormbringer, imho. I believe Sword and Sorcery is the true father of fantasy gaming as we know it–it’s certainly the main inspiration behind my own Tunnels and Trolls. Every Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, Runescape adventure is a swords and sorcery adventure.

    It was interesting and enlightening to see how all those notable authors regard the genre in which they excell.  Thanks, sfsignal for posing the quesstion to them all.

  2. Great Mind Meld.  There are some great comments here, some with what I think is the necessary level of personalization because S&S generates a peculiar affection and, like it’s sibling heroic fantasy, often serves as a form of rescue from our drab lives (often at adolescence). 

    The two most resonant quotations here are from Moorcock and Lee:

    “Captain Blood meets Cthulhu” and “a large and flamboyant rescue of my sanity at an early and difficult (17 – 24) stage of my life.”  The former points to the melding of heroic fantasy and horror that makes S&S a distinctive, while the latter nails the more emotional function of the genre.  It is gateway way and escape hatch into worlds broadly drawn, morally stark, and full of evocative, yet campy, prose and characters and shenanigans.  While some authors do more with it (Joe Abercrombie immediately comes to mind), what gives the genre its juice is its focus on the visceral and the abominable, the impulsive and the passionate, dark terrors fought with spirit and steel rather than reason.  It is Campbellian in its tropes and immerses us in a world of wonders that could kill us at any moment.

    It is sometimes a mirror for our own precarious lives, shrouded in comfortably distant metaphors, urging us to use our instincts and to thrill at moments that would strike us mad in the real world.

  3. Jason Hardy // July 21, 2010 at 10:40 am //

    Some really interesting comments by the authors/editors. To me Sword and Sorcery generally has two major components: a hero/heroine (or two) with a questionable background and an element of magic/sorcery to the proceedings. Beyond that its up to the author. I prefer the setting of a nicely detailed wonderfully seedy city or a slightly askew historical world with fantasy elements. If someone were to ask me this question I would promptly tell him/her to read Leiber’s Ill Met in Lankhmar. Without doubt (well my doubt anyway) the best single example of S&S ever produced. If they enjoy that then they will know what sword and sorcery means.

  4. Paul NYC // July 21, 2010 at 11:22 am //

    S&S is the kind of fantasy fiction I like best for several reasons. First, it is often not set in yet one more Medieval-like world lifted straight from Tolkien. The world is rough, dirty and exotic. Too many times in what’s called, I suppose, High or Epic Fantasy, I always feel as if all the characters are forever worried about rules of etiquette. In S&S, I feel that the societal rules are merely accepted as the way things are and might even be seen privately (or not) as a burden imposed by the gods.

    I also enjoy the fact that the gods or the wizards or pretty much everyone is flawed in some way. It reminds me of the hard boiled or crime sub-genres of Mystery where sometimes the protagonist is a pretty bad person him or herself.

    S&S exhilarates me in a way that Tolkienesque (using the term loosely) fantasy does not — except for Tolkien himself.

  5. To me Sword and Sorcery is very close to the Western.  Especially the spaghetti western with dubious protagonists and even worse antagonists.  With some different and shared trappings.  Certainly the horse appears in many a S&S tale.  And certainly magic and wizards is something that most Western tales do not have.  

    But that lone man or valiant few against the forces of both civilization and evil sorceries has a similar feel to the Wild Bunch or the Professionals or the Magnificent Seven or Hang ’em high.    

    The visual language of sword and sorcery has its own tenor, akin to the Western pulps of yesterday, but expanded and modified by Frazetta, Whelan and Buscema.  I don’t think we can discount the impact of those visuals.  The DAW Elric series by Whelan was my own cup of tea that I drank deeply from, I coveted those books for months after seeing one in the library.   I was also steeped in Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and that led to the Conan comics, especially the black and white Savage Sword mags!  

    I continue in giant footsteps, eeking out pastiche artworks for the roleplaying industry.  I always cackle with glee when I get to do some sword and sorcery stuff!  Makes my day!


  6. I enjoyed this book very much and all these comments are very interesting. I’ve been a S&S fan from early teens if not before (there used to be some great S&S comics in late 70s early 80s).

    I think the statement from the introduction – and has already been mentioned above-says it best. “If high fantasy is a child of The Iliad, then swords and sorcery is a product of The Odyssey.” I was also very enthused about the referances to Westerns, because I’d often thought and stated that myself but it was the first I’d seen it mentioned.

    Maybe cause I’m a Howard fan, I have tendancy to think of sorcery in S&S to most usually the tool of the bad-guys and I still have a tendancy to proscribe to the belief of those who worship Crom, in that he breathed into mortals the gift of strength and the secret of steel, which should be all we need to defeat demon-hordes and dark wizards. But Enge’s Morlock Ambrose has changed my mind (BTW-I’m currently reading Blood of Ambrose after reading his story in the book).

    To sum-it-up in my poor and limited literary skill I think of S&S as; a fantasy story based more on individual character’s/characters’ adventures/misadventures then kingdom-scale conflicts. In short; action-adventure tales done fantasy style.

  7. S&S is to J. R. R. Tolkien as the hard-boiled-detective story is to Agatha Christie.

  8. Sword & Sorcery was a label bestowed on alternate world fantasy novels, parallel worlds fantasy, and occasionally pre-industrial historical fantasy novels that were not considered Tolkein-like enough in style or scope. While it usually meant a quest adventure story, the label was applied indiscriminantly and randomly a lot of the time. It did not have to have morally ambiguous main characters and indeed, the complaint often raised about sword & sorcery by its detractors was that it too often had morally unambiguous, relentlessly good main characters. In the late 1980’s, the word epic began to be used more and more for alternate world fantasy stories among fans, and the use of the terms “high” fantasy (Tolkein-like,) and sword & sorcery dropped off. Quest stories and pretty much all alternate world fantasy novels were usually just called epics. In the oughts, people started to complain about the term epic and what exactly it meant, so then a lot of the older terms: high fantasy, heroic, sword & sorcery, etc., popped up again, including old terms like steampunk for Victorian historical fantasy and urban fantasy for contemporary suspense fantasy. 

    While sword & sorcery isn’t a bad name for adventure stories, it was often used as a derogatory term, meaning that the story was low fantasy and inferior. As such, I prefer not to use it. Even without that, pretty much two-thirds of fantasy fiction, including dark fantasy and contemporary fantasy titles, could fall under the rubric for having swords, magic and adventure, and so it doesn’t seem to be very useful. However, if fans like using the term and it will help eliminate the idea that alternate world fantasy has to be written in only one form, ye haw.

  9. Paul NYC // July 21, 2010 at 7:54 pm //

    KatG wrote:

    While sword & sorcery isn’t a bad name for adventure stories, it was often used as a derogatory term, meaning that the story was low fantasy and inferior.

    As I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, I’m of a mind to think that detractors should pretty much mind their own business.

  10. I think I agree with the notion that sword and sorcery is, to some degree, working-class. In epic fantasy the central figures are nobles already, or become nobles, or discover they have royal/noble blood. A prophecy may be involved. The scale is large, the events are world-changing, and the protagonists end up being famous.

    In S&S this is less so. The scale is small, perhaps involving a quest to recover a relic from an ancient stronghold rather than, say, defending an entire North American-sized continent from the Darkbane invasion from Mount Sinister. The heroes are world-weary and often cynical, but often retain a cental core of moral certainty. If they do change the face of the world they end up avoiding recognition or fame, or reject it if it is thrust upon them. S&S figures I’d say include Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Conan the Barbarian are perhaps the leading examples. In more recent times, perhaps the Black Company, Drizzt Do’Urden or Erevis Cale fulfil the same roles.

    There is a great cross-pollination between S&S and epic fantasy, however, and many exceptions. Elric is seen as an S&S figure but is also a prince and someone of world-changing power. Conan gets tired of adventuring and settles down to rule Aquilonia as King (but still has time to get out there and tread some more jeweled thrones of Earth under his feet when he gets antsy). Steven Erikson’s MALAZAN books lock the two subgenres in a room together and makes them sit down and try to get along (Karsa Orlong is an S&S figure in an epic fantasy world, doesn’t particularly like it, and resolves to trash the place). Scott Bakker’s Cnaiur is clearly wishing he was off somewhere else causing mayhem rather than following a holy crusade into the heart of a desert war that will give birth to a dark messiah.

    The biggest difference between the two, to me, is that generally in sword and sorcery it’s possible to tell a rich and entertaining story in less than 50 pages, whilst epic fantasy takes that long just to clear its throat and sharpen its pencil.

  11. I think the key to understanding sword & sorcery is to remember that it’s sword & SORCERY, not “sword & the enchanting magic of wonder”. The genre could be renamed“sword & supernatural abilities employed to wicked ends”. The antiheroes of sword & sorcery make for effective protagonists because they often face sorcerers who are even worse than they are.

    Magic, in sword & sorcery, is almost always a malign force, and at best manages sort of a dark neutrality. In high fantasy, or heroic fantasy, you can have heroic magic users, or magic users acting as a representative of a benevolent higher power, like Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings”.

    Not so in sword & sorcery. There aren’t any Gandalfs, Dumbledores, Geds, or Allanons running around in a sword & sorcery. Instead, you have Xaltotun of Acheron, Iucounu the Laughing Magician, the Limper, and scores of other wicked and cruel magicians. A barbarian hero can only kill you with a sword, but a sorcerer can do far, far worse – and will usually enjoy doing it, too.

    And I think this makes sword & sorcery more realistic, in a psychological sense. Often people who attain political or financial or social power abuse it, sometimes horribly, and enjoy abusing it. Why would someone with supernatural power act any differently?

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