From Robert E. Howard’s Conan to the modern writings of George R. R. Martin, this sub-genre of fantasy is alive and well.
Sword and Sorcery is a sub-genre of the fantasy genre of fiction, taking its name from the sword-slinging adventurers who generally make up the genre’s protagonists and the sorcery-using characters who are often the villains and/or antagonists. This sub-genre will soon have been around for a hundred years, author Robert E. Howard generally being considered the founder of Sword and Sorcery in the late 1920s.
Howard is remembered as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, the best-known of all the characters from Sword and Sorcery. But Howard has not stood alone over the years. Many other authors have brought heroes and villains and tales of their own, including such writers as Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Andrew J. Offutt, John Jakes and others.
There is no single, solid definition of what makes a tale Sword and Sorcery, the sub-genre’s title having been coined by Leiber in the early 1960s, but most of the stories contain some similarities in content or tone or in other details. For example, most of the protagonists in Sword and Sorcery stories tend to rely on their own resources to get them through a struggle, often their brawn but just as often their wits. Action of course plays a consistent role in these tales and usually the use of magic is limited to the bad guys. But there are always exceptions. As an example of opposites, Moorcock’s Elric character is in nearly all ways an anti-Sword and Sorcery character since he is physically quite frail and often uses magic.
Another trait common to Sword and Sorcery stories is the mindset of the main character(s). While no two such characters think exactly alike, there are some similarities. For instance, while Sword and Sorcery protagonists often act in heroic fashion, they rarely think heroically. In other words, their deeds are usually not done altruistically. There is usually something to gain, often wealth in one form or another, but just as often the conflict can be about simply surviving. Unlike epic fantasy heroes, the main characters in Sword and Sorcery are rarely out to save the world or a kingdom or even an individual, unless it’s themselves or something for whom they have a personal interest, such as a lover or someone who owes them money, etc.
Unfortunately for fans of this genre, Sword and Sorcery has in many reading circles, and often among the populace at large, come to have a bad reputation. This sub-genre is often thought of as lowbrow literature, stories that could only appeal to teen boys at best. To some extent, there is a kernel of truth to this. Sword and Sorcery is adventure fiction. It’s meant to be. But it also can appeal to adults and even to women.
Several things over the years have brought Sword and Sorcery it’s less-than-stellar reputation. First, the early stories were published in the 1920s and 1930s by magazines that had lots of space to fill, which meant that good Sword and Sorcery short stories were often tucked in with bad stories. Also, Hollywood has done this genre few favors, with most Sword and Sorcery movies being flat-out awful, with a few notable exceptions such as the original Conan the Barbarian movie.
However, there is plenty of good Sword and Sorcery available, some of older works written by the masters of the genre, and more modern works that are drawing plenty of readers.
Not in the least. This sub-genre has changed much, especially over the last couple of decades, but it is still alive and well. Nearly all of the well-known Sword and Sorcery authors have passed away, but Moorcock is still going strong and every once in a while Andrew Offutt pens a story.
But, more importantly, is the newest generation of fantasy authors who are writing and publishing Sword and Sorcery and similar tales. Sword and Sorcery has a strong short story tradition, but in the last 20 or so years longer and longer works of fantasy have been hitting book store shelves. These newer works are rarely through-and-through Sword and Sorcery stories, but often they include Sword and Sorcery characters and themes mixed together with epic hero tropes as well as other action/adventure-oriented fantasy sub-genres. Steven Eriksonand Martin are two of the better-known authors in this trend, as well as the late David Gemmell and Robert Jordan.
Also, there is still plenty of short fiction focusing on Sword and Sorcery. Publisher Jason Waltz of Rogue Blades Entertainment is turning out anthologies of short stories that are strong heroic fiction, and the magazine Black Gate focuses almost entirely upon Sword and Sorcery fiction and tales in similar veins.
So, the next time you’re chomping at the bit to read some action-packed stories, don’t forget to give Sword and Sorcery a try. This fantasy sub-genre is alive and well and can provide plenty of thrills. And I’ve just touched upon all that is Sword and Sorcery; there are plenty more authors, modern and classic, who offer great tales of sword slinging.