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:
Here’s what they said…
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.
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…
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.
Swords and sorcery is…
- …based somewhere in something remotely like history
- …when there are gods, or sorcery works
- …when there is conflict, often involving no more than survival
- …when the hero/heroine may or may not be on the wrong side of the law, and
- …when there are subgenres:
- temples, snakes, and virgins
- the idiot emperor and the evil advisor
- the lovelorn princess wants a way out of town
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.